By Curt Yeomans
John Shiffert has a tough time picking the best speaker he's heard at Clayton State University's annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration.
Shiffert, the university's spokesman, has been on the planning committee for all of the celebrations.
He's heard well-known civil rights figures, Julian Bond, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and the Rev. Joseph Lowery over the years.
Andrew Young, however, is the speaker who stands out in Shiffert's mind.
"What can you say about the man, he's a leader," Shiffert said. "He came across as a very plain, regular guy."
Clayton State will host the eighth annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration on at 7:30 p.m., on Thursday, in the university's Spivey Hall. Billye S. Aaron, wife of baseball great, Hank Aaron, will deliver this year's keynote address. The theme for the event is "Civil Rights in Atlanta: A Personal Reflection, featuring Billye S. Aaron."
Aaron was a teacher at the high school and college levels for 12 years. She was also a fund-raiser for the United Negro College Fund for 14 years before she retired in 1994, as the organization's vice president of the southern region.
For more than 25 years, she has been a member of the governing board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She has been a member of Morehouse College's Board of Trustees since 1996.
She was married to the Rev. Samuel Williams, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and former chairman of the Atlanta Human Relations Commission, until his death in 1970. She then married Hank Aaron in 1973, only a few months before he broke Major League Baseball's all-time home run record.
"One of the goals of the planning team has always been to focus on the living history aspect," said Deborah Greer-Dupree, CSU's director of special projects. "Students get the opportunity, and the privilege, to come face to face with that history. They have the opportunity to meet these people [the speakers] and connect with them."
Greer-Dupree said the stories of people who lived through the civil rights period of the 1950's and 1960's can still resonate with younger generations. The case of the Jena (La.) Six, and the current dialogue about race in the presidential campaigns, are signs that society continues to struggle with race relations, but Greer-Dupree believes the issue goes beyond African Americans and Caucasians.
"As long as we're dealing with people, we're always going to be faced with differences," she said. "Dr. King was about embracing those differences. In order to survive in today's world, you have to be capable of embracing differences. This society has become more diverse. There are people who come from different religions, nationalities and abilities."
Greer-Dupree hopes people who attend the King celebration will hear what Billye S. Aaron talks about, and continue the work begun by previous generations.
"The legends may be gone [some day], but these opportunities to hear them afford us the chance to keep it going," she said. "This [celebration] is meant to inspire them [the attendees], as well as educate them."