MLK holiday awards breakfast honors James Robnett Jr., MAC Scholars

Thursday, January 15, 2009 | 7:31 p.m. CST; updated 7:32 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 12, 2009

COLUMBIA — In the late 1980s, James Robnett Jr., 55, explained his philosophy of direct action to youthful student protesters concerned with MU's continued investment in South Africa.

"They thought of direct action as disruptive action, but I explained they might need to change their tactics and suggested they focus on educating the student body rather than disrupting board meetings," Robnett said.

While the students took his advice, Robnett worked with sympathetic state legislators to pass laws that divested the state of investment in South Africa. MU soon followed suit.

Robnett was honored Thursday morning at the Columbia Values Diversity breakfast. Two awards are given each year: one to honor the contributions of an individual and the other to honor the contributions of a group whose work in the community reflects the values and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.

Robnett has embraced the practices and values of King since he participated in sit-ins as a high school student. As a senior at Central High School in St. Louis, Robnett helped organize the national day of defense for Angela Davis — an activist and former Black Panther acquitted of having a role in a judge's murder during an attempted prison break — and to create a suspension hearing board comprised of administrators, parents, teachers and students.

In 2006 Robnett helped form Concerned Citizens of Boone County. The group's mission is to improve relations between the community - particularly youth - and local law enforcement. Robnett now works for the Missouri Department of Economic Development Compliance Team to ensure public resources are distributed fairly.

The Minority Achievement Committee Scholars received the group award. Christopher Watkins, a member of MAC Scholars and a junior at Douglass High School, gave unequivocal advice to MAC Scholars: "Get your schoolwork done first, then worry about the rest."

Watkins and Dwessie Hightower, a senior at Rock Bridge High School, are leaders and officers in their respective buildings' groups. They meet after school a couple of times a month to plan community service projects, explore college opportunities and learn time management, conflict mediation and other life skills.

"I know I'm a role model for younger kids," Hightower said. He's been a member of MAC Scholars since he was freshman. Hightower credits the program for helping him define his higher education goals: he hopes to study commercial music production or journalism.

The MAC Scholars program was developed in Shaker Heights, Ohio, about 20 years ago. Columbia Public Schools started programs at Rock Bridge High School and Hickman High School in 2002. Today, all secondary school buildings have programs and full-time coordinators to support the academic achievement of minority students, including enrollment in honors and advanced placement courses.

Monica Naylor, this year's diversity breakfast emcee, gave voice to the values of community service and commitment to education embodied by Robnett, Watkins and Hightower by quoting King: "Access to quality education is the great equalizer in our society."

"The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is the time we reflect on how we treat each other in Columbia, in our nation and in the world," Naylor said in her speech. About 1,000 people attended the Columbia Values Diversity breakfast on Thursday to celebrate the life and teachings of King.

Since 1993 a coalition of civic, religious, education and human service organizations and community members have hosted the diversity breakfast. Sixteen people representing 12 organizations spent about six months garnering sponsorships and planning logistics for this year's event.

The 2009 program included a dance performance. The dance performance, a narrated montage of original poetry, choreography and music, celebrated the power of dance to bridge cultures and echoed King's belief in the power of love to bridge communities.

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