MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
The ending of those memorable strains of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug. 28, 1963, “I Have a Dream” speech launched the 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Anniversary Scholarship Banquet Sunday night at the Holiday Inn.
More than 250 ticket holders filled the large banquet room to hear Shepherdstown, W.Va., native and featured speaker Robert “Bob” Holmes tell them how the slain civil-rights leader “energized, inspired and mobilized a nation to create a more just and fair society.”
Holmes called King a “symbol of a movement that helped to move this nation closer to the ideals and promises in the major documents written by the founding fathers more than two centuries ago.”
He said King’s spellbinding oratory and writings influenced him and millions of others who decided they would try to carry out his legacy to create a more just society.
Holmes, 67, who lives in Atlanta, graduated from Shepherd College, now Shepherd University, in 1964 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University.
He served 34 years in the Georgia General Assembly, retiring in 2009. He is a retired Distinguished Professor of Political Science and director of the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Atlanta. He was also director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute.
Holmes has written more than 70 journal articles and book chapters. Last year, his biography of Maynard H. Jackson Jr., the first black mayor of Atlanta, was published. He is working on his autobiography, to be published next year.
Holmes was one of the first black students to enter the newly integrated Shepherdstown High School. He said he attended his class’s 50th reunion last year.
Proceeds from the banquet support $1,000 scholarships for six high school graduates from Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties. Winners have to show by example that education is one of the primary means for the advancement of the human condition.
About 20 students apply for the scholarships every year, said committee member Patrick Murphy.
Rosabelle Roman chairs the scholarship committee.
Circuit Judge Gray Silver III of Berkeley County said the King banquet is a reminder “that it’s important to remember the past advancements of civil rights, particularly those that Martin Luther King moved forward.”
“Look back to the beginning of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Committee. It was a time when race was still a raw nerve,” Murphy said. “It was an opportunity for people to start to sit down and break bread together.”
Past banquet speakers have included Yolanda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, and Jim Vance and Maureen Bunyan of television news.
The evening ended with the audience, led by the Charles Hunter Chorale, singing “We Shall Overcome.”