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Lee Benson
Judge Shauna Graves-Robertson is the recipient of the 2018 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award from the Salt Lake City chapter of the NAACP. She is the presiding judge of the Salt Lake County Justice Court.

SALT LAKE CITY —

She was 5 years old when she and her family gathered in front of the television in the front room of their house on the west side of Salt Lake City to watch a man give a speech.

She’s never forgotten it.

Neither has anyone else.

The man was Martin Luther King Jr. The occasion was his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington, D.C., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.

As with so many people of color who grew up when the civil rights movement finally started to turn the corner, King’s speech shaped that girl.

Just how much it shaped her, and affected her life’s course, will be the topic of the hour at Monday’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day luncheon hosted by the Salt Lake City branch of the NAACP, where that girl will be honored as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award recipient for 2018.

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She’s all grown up now, of course, but ask Judge Shauna Graves-Robertson, the presiding jurist in the Salt Lake County Justice Court, about hearing Dr. King’s famous speech 54 years ago and her eyes light up and she breaks into a wide smile.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she says. “I was young and I might not have understood exactly what was said or what it all meant. But we were all gathered around and we were all listening, and I knew that this was something important.”

Even to those listening in far-off Salt Lake City — where in the 1960s minorities were truly that, and especially African-Americans, who made up less than one–half of 1 percent of the population — the notion of achieving true equality, of envisioning a future where “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony” resonated like a trumpet call.

Especially on Washington Street, where the future judge lived alongside some 25 families of color, “counting brown and black,” who were her neighbors.

The last of four children raised by a single mom who worked long hours in food service at the VA Hospital, Shauna, nine years younger than her nearest sibling, might have had free range as a child, left to get into all sorts of mischief, but that didn’t happen, she’ll tell you, because her mother had all sorts of help.

There were her godparents, Frank and Janie Mae Crosby; there were the folks at New Pilgrim Baptist Church (and later, Calvary Baptist); there were the members of the Elks Club; there was the shoeshine man, Mr. Chris Christy, who made sure Shauna’s shoes were polished and fixed; there was the man who ran the cleaners across from West High School, Mr. Cleo Finney, who kept her clothes cleaned and mended and didn’t charge anybody anything.

And always, there was the NAACP, an organization Shauna joined when she was still in elementary school and remains a life member to this day. There, chapter president Dr. Alberta Henry, a legendary champion of minorities, as fine a surrogate as Dr. King could ever hope for, stepped in, signing up Shauna for the NAACP Sisters of Soul, a drill team that performed at Utah Stars games, as well as the Black Honor Society, plus an unending procession of service projects and activities that “made sure we stayed out of trouble and always had something to do.”

“It truly takes a village,” says Judge Graves-Robertson as she looks back at where she came from. “And I think I am a glowing example of what the village does. I am the epitome of the village child.”

Her upbringing inspired her to want to be a lawyer and follow in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall and other great African-American attorneys. At Arizona State University, where she joined the international service sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, she earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. At the University of Utah, she received a master’s in public administration, followed by her law degree.

She served under two Utah governors, Scott Matheson and Norm Bangerter, as the state’s first head of the Office of Black Affairs. In 1986 her office was instrumental in helping push through legislation that recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day (first called Human Rights Day) in Utah.

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In 1999, she was appointed to the bench at the Salt Lake County Justice Court — becoming the first African-American woman judge in Utah history.

In all her firsts and all her career moves, there has been one constant: crusading for human rights. And not just for black people — for everyone.

“The goal isn’t to help a race,” she says. “The goal is to help people. You don’t look at the color of a person’s skin, you look at the need that is there and what you can do to help.”

Sounds like something someone else once said.