On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a call for Utahns to move on from the ‘lukewarm’

“Pain …”

That’s the one-word poem Nicole M. Ford-Francis wrote about her 22-year-old son who died of a heroin overdose — and on Monday at a NAACP luncheon for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she spoke publicly about her loss for the first time.

“The one thing [King] couldn’t stand was lukewarm people,” said Ford-Francis, founder of the Baltimore-based think tank Visionary Policy Institute, in her impassioned appeal titled, “Don’t Give Up the Fight and Never Cease to Write.”

“So I made a choice this morning not to be lukewarm,” she said Monday, noting that more people have died from opioids in a year than from the Vietnam War.

“We have the same problems ... regardless of skin color,” the keynote speaker told nearly 400 luncheon attendees at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City. “How do I do something that will change the world? I write and I talk.”

That, Ford-Francis said, is how King created a movement — with speeches and letters, writing even when harassed and ridiculed, imprisoned and exhausted.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune)Taj Thompson, a first grader at Buffalo Point Elementary in Syracuse, gets a standing ovation from Salt Lake City's NAACP President Jeanetta Williams after he recited Martin Luther King's speech "Fun Town" during the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Luncheon on Monday, January 15, 2018.

In 1963, King was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., for organizing protests without a parade permit. It was while incarcerated that he penned some of his most eloquent, powerful and lasting prose.

What if he had been too tired? Ford-Francis asked. “What if we didn’t have the tapes from his speeches or the letters he wrote?”

A significant part of his legacy, she said, “would be lost.”

It was King’s words that inspired first-grader Taj Thompson, who delivered them from memory at the luncheon.

“You suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television,” the pint-size orator from Syracuse’ Buffalo Point Elementary School recited into the microphone, repeating his hero’s words from the famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

And, Thompson continued, with animated gestures of a Baptist preacher, “[you] see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Fun Town is closed to colored children.”

At the annual event, the historic black organization gave to Salt Lake County Justice Court Judge Shauna Graves-Robertson the Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Award.

“I accept this award on behalf of the village that raised me,” said Graves-Robertson, a Salt Lake City native. “Anything I am is because of the village. They gave me a hand up, not a handout.”

The group honored Utah philanthropist Gail Miller with the Rosa Parks Award for “outstanding contributions to the state of Utah and all that she has done in making a difference.”

For the first time, the NAACP handed out the First Responders Award, recognizing 11 recipients to “celebrate the men and women who serve our communities every day.”

One name was missing from the Martin Luther King Jr. Day event — President Donald Trump’s.

No one mentioned the president’s alleged statements decrying immigration from mostly black countries like Haiti and some African nations.

“I made the decision not to discuss the president’s racist remarks,” said NAACP Salt Lake President Jeanetta Williams, “but to honor Martin Luther King’s memory.”

One of the ways her organization plans to commemorate him, she wrote in the luncheon’s program, is to help people register to vote in Utah and across the country. It is also working toward guaranteeing that every child “will receive a free, high-quality, equitably-funded, public pre-K and K-12 education,” she wrote, “followed by diverse opportunities for accessible, affordable vocational or university education.”

At Monday’s gathering, the registration table featured a petition drive for the state to create a license plate featuring King.

All the organizers needed was 500 signatures — just a few more than were on hand to remember the man on what would have been his 89th birthday.

— Reporter Nate Carlisle contributed to this story.