Three Harford County public school students, including an elementary, middle and high school student, received the Joseph Bond - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Awards for 2015 Wednesday during a luncheon to honor the late civil rights leaders and mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"These men shared a dream, a dream of making their communities the best possible," Sylvia Bryant, manager of the Harford County Office of Human Relations, said.
Bryant addressed the audience of Harford County community leaders and elected officials who gathered for the luncheon in a banquet room at Silks Restaurant on the Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace.
Dr. King, the 20th century national civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968, led and supported community-based efforts to end the legal segregation of whites and blacks in the South and led the drive to pass landmark legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act to end discrimination against blacks and other minority groups.
Mr. Bond was the head of the Harford County NAACP and he fought for civil rights in Harford.
"They were lights in the communities they touched," Bryant said.
Jake Medvetz, a student at Youth's Benefit Elementary School, Shadiamond Kell, of Aberdeen Middle School, and Nia Hammett, of Edgewood High School, were the winners of this year's essay contest, which is sponsored by the Harford County Human Relations Commission.
The essays submitted for the contest, which could be in written or video form – video submissions were allowed for the first time this year – had to be on the theme of voting rights.
"It is my understanding that the Voting Rights Act is considered to be one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation enacted ever," Bryant said.
The students had to consider a quote from Dr. King on voting: "And so we shall have to do more than register and more than vote. ... We shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect, who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud with enthusiasm."
Each student received a tablet and a proclamation from Harford County Executive Barry Glassman.
Amber Shrodes, director of the county's Department of Community Services, spoke in Glassman's stead.
Shrodes said Glassman wanted her to extend his personal congratulations to each winner.
She also encouraged audience members to consider the upcoming federal holiday honoring Dr. King, which falls Monday, "a day on and not a day off" and perform a community service project.
"There are so many wonderful opportunities to give back to Harford County and make a lasting difference in someone's life," Shrodes said.
University of Maryland law professor and author Larry S. Gibson was the keynote speaker at the luncheon.
Gibson wrote the 2012 nonfiction book "Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice."
The book is about Maryland native Thurgood Marshall, a prominent civil rights attorney who became the first black justice of the Supreme Court. Justice Marshall died during the early 1990s.
Gibson, who is also an attorney with the firm Shapiro, Sher, Guinot & Sandler in Baltimore, said his book chronicles Justice Marshall's life up through age 30.
"My mission in the book was not, principally, to write about what Thurgood Marshall did, but what Thurgood Marshall was like," Gibson said.
Gibson, who was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Baltimore, said his book is not only about Justice Marshall but also the conditions he lived in a segregated Maryland.
Gibson recounted his own childhood and adolescence living in segregated Baltimore. His high school, Baltimore City College, was integrated, but he could not eat at the lunch counter along his daily trolley route, he could not see a movie at most theaters in the city and while he could reset pins at a bowling alley for his after-school job, he could not bowl any games.
"I never set pins in a bowling alley in which I could bowl," he said.
Gibson also recalled that staffers at Union Memorial Hospital refused "for a long time" to set his broken arm after he was injured in a high school sporting event.
Gibson graduated from City in 1960, and he went on to the historically black Howard University in Washington.
He said the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, a case in which Justice Marshall played a crucial role as an NAACP attorney, struck down school segregation, but "the courts were unwilling to provide much relief" in other segregated segments of society.
"It became clear that a federal law was needed," Gibson said. "That is what the 1963 March on Washington was all about, pressing for the creation of a federal national law addressing a variety of matters but particularly discrimination."
The March on Washington, during which Dr. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream Speech" about achieving racial equality, was in August 1963, the summer before Gibson's senior year at Howard.
Gibson said he had seen Dr. King speak before, and he knew Dr. King would be the last speaker the day he gave his speech, so he heard some of the morning speeches and then went home.
"How was I to know Dr. King was going to deliver one of the greatest speeches in the history of the nation?" he asked a laughing audience.