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Speakers remembering the words, deeds and death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke Monday at a prayer breakfast of work yet unfinished, as their remarks were punctuated by performances by younger people now looked upon to help carry out the task.

More than 200 people gathered at St. Mary’s College of Maryland for the 10th annual Southern Maryland Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast, where they heard a call to transition past achievements of legal justice into greater economic justice. The performances by student bands and a gospel choir, along with two college students’ readings of famous works, prompted the master of ceremonies to note the expanding scope of people trying to escape persecution.

“They have the message that a lot of us still struggle to identify with,” Kelsey Bush, youth coordinator with St. Mary’s Division of Community Services, said toward the end of the 90-minute program that followed the morning meal.

From the onset, speakers including Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) focused on what it has taken to fill the gap between the United States’ founding principles and making those promises a reality.

“It took a long time, ... [and] some lives,” Hoyer said, speaking of King as someone “who looked America in the eye and said, ‘What you say may sound good, but what you’re doing is bad.’ He galvanized the conscience of the world to say words are not enough.”

Hoyer said that the advance from equality to true equity includes current issues such as extending unemployment benefits, increasing the minimum wage and ensuring the availability of affordable health care.

Bert Ifill, the college’s interim dean of students, spoke directly about the gap between legal justice and economic justice.

“It was beyond removing the impediment. We had to do something active and affirmative,” Ifill said. “It was more complicated than the fight for legal rights.”

The early 1960s brought not only the beginning of great civil unrest in the streets of the United States, Ifill said, but also the imprisonment in South Africa of Nelson Mandela, a man branded as a traitor who decades later was freed and elected to lead a nation in a transition from its own strict racial segregation under apartheid, without seeking violent retribution against the oppressors.

“Now they could move forward to a knitting together of the South African nation,” Ifill said.

Knowledge of past problems and solutions makes a person “bound and committed to doing something about what you’ve learned,” including a responsibility to address more current issues, Ifill said, adding that King, if alive today at the age of 85, would bring a reminder of that duty.

“He would continue to challenge us, and to irritate us,” Ifill said.

Marleigh Ferguson, a student at the College of Southern Maryland, spoke and sang the words to Maya Angelou’s poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Jeremy Hunter, also a student at CSM, read from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

In addition to songs from the Southern Maryland Community Gospel Choir, the audience heard performances by the Great Mills High School Steel Band and the Spring Ridge Middle School Rhythm Club.

During the benediction, the Rev. Roderick McClanahan of First Missionary Baptist Church said in prayer, “We thank you that we have experienced the enthusiasm of our youth. We respond with revival, recommitment and restoration.”

jwharton@somdnews.com