Roger Napue remembers how, as a not quite 17-year-old high school student, he was like Chicken Little and “felt like my sky had fallen” when Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in 1968.

King was human and had his faults – “In so many ways he was just like you and I,” Napue said – but he felt called to a mission to reach for equality for everyone and had an innate ability to go anywhere and talk to anyone, rich or homeless.

Napue, who spoke Monday evening at Independence's 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, said he soon began to reflect on King's words and lessons and realized, “If I'm going to move forward, I have to get up and do what I was supposed to do.”

Ultimately, Napue said, he believes that means carrying the baton and crossing the finish line because the race King had been running is not over.

Napue, who grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, but has lived in Kansas City since 1984, is a descendant of Nicodemus, Kansas, the first and only remaining all-black community west of the Mississippi. He is a board member of the Nicodemus Kansas Historical Society.

Napue said he considered himself fortunate to have been exposed to different cultures and backgrounds at his Lincoln high school.

“I would've missed out; I would've been cocooned,” he said, recalling how he and a white friend reflected on what high school might otherwise have been like.

In high school, Napue had been part of a track relay team, where running outside the lane, dropping the baton or even exchanging outside the designated space meant disqualification.

The best way he believes he and others can honor King's legacy, is “choose to accept the baton” and remember a lesson from his father about always giving a good impression even when you don't think people are watching.

“You're an ambassador wherever you go; you represent,” he said his father told him during a lackluster afternoon of outdoor chores. “Wherever you go, you carry this name. Don't you make this name look bad.”

“I will not drop the baton,” Napue said about honoring King. “I will stay in the lane; I will cross the finish line; I absolutely will not be disqualified; I will represent.”

In doing so, Napue said, people should always be willing to simply show a friendly face, give some encouragement, or listen a few minutes.

“Always be aware of the opportunities to be kind,” he said.

The First Presbyterian Church Choir and Truman High School TruTones Choir provided musical performances for the King Celebration. Organizers presented the King Humanitarian Award went to Barbara Graeff-Vinck, manager of the Stone Church Community Dinner program. Alana Little Eagle Spicer, an eighth grader at Bingham Middle School, received the middle school essay award. Brennen Glover, a senior at William Chrisman High School, received the John Olivarez Scholarship Essay Award in absentia.