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A renewed call to 'be bold, brave and courageous'

By Mike Genet

While racially tinged incidents involving law enforcement led to numerous protests around the country in recent years, particularly 2020, Albert Byrd notes there has been “no incident of that severity in this community” of Independence.

Byrd, speaking during Independence's 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, said that is partially credited to a memorandum of understanding negotiated more than 30 years ago between the city and the Community of Concerned Citizens, which helps organize the King celebration. 

“I believe that’s, in part, because there’s a level of communication, there’s a quality of relationship and there’s a level of expectation,” from that MOU, Byrd said, challenging both sides to continue to find ways to strive for equality.

Normally held in the Truman Memorial Building, organizers moved Monday’s celebration online. The recorded segments were linked together in their usual order for a single video, which was broadcast online at the same time the normal celebration would take place. The chosen theme, “You must be bold, brave and courageous, and find a way to get in the way,” came from late Congressman John Lewis, who marched with King, nearly died in that process and remained a staunch advocate for equality and civil rights during his career.

Byrd, a community liaison with the local office of the Missouri Department of Transportation since 2006, taught in Africa as a member of the Peace Corps, worked 30 years in the Jackson County Family Court system and also has served as a professional football scout for the Denver Broncos.

He said the pandemic has shown how unemployment and poverty remain comparatively higher for African-Americans – a symptom of systemic racism, he said – and in Independence, African-Americans are grossly overrepresented in the latest disparity index for traffic stops.

“What would John Lewis do to find a way,” Byrd said. “To the Community of Concerned Citizens, he would say to reassess and find a way to address the needs of citizens, to revisit the memorandum of understanding to address the needs of the citizens of Independence.”

That MOU was revised recently to develop a new application for boards and commissions to hopefully increase participation from under-represented population groups. Personnel policies and procedures and training sessions have also been updated.

Lastly, Byrd said, such advocacy groups must “find and develop new leaders” to continue their work.

The William Chrisman High School concert choir, David Sua, Toni Piper and Matthew Baumler and Brianna Olivera provided musical performances for the King Celebration.  

Organizers presented the King Human Relations Award to Bruce Bailey, vice president of income supports with the Community Service League, for his long career and volunteer efforts dedicated to social services. Talalupelele Tali received the middle school essay award, and Onopene Olamaleva received the John Olivarez Scholarship Essay Award. 

Reading from her essay, Tali recalled standing up to a group of girls bullying a hard-of-hearing, then getting a thank-you hug from the girl, whose name she did know at the time, when they crossed paths later in a restaurant.

“I’m glad I had the courage to stand up for her and get in the way,” Tali said.

Olamaleva says she tries to find all kinds of little ways to help less fortunate people “find the joy in their lives.” 

“Through my experiences,” she said, “I hope to become the best of me in all that I do.”