Large crowd gathers for Lawrence MLK Day celebration to hear from speaker who broke a color barrier at West Point

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Retired Army Colonel Gary Steele delivers the keynote address at the 16th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast on Jan. 16, 2023 in downtown Lawrence.

A capacity crowd of about 200 people got a Martin Luther King Jr. prescription filled at a downtown community breakfast honoring the late civil rights leader on Monday.

Its most potent active ingredient: Personal courage.

“All of us here has it to a degree,” keynote speaker Gary Steele told the crowd at Maceli’s Banquet Hall. “But I think we are all going to need a little more personal courage if we are going to choose to make this country change, to make it different, to make it as successful as it can be.”

Steele, a retired Army colonel from Carlisle, Penn., became the first Black varsity football player at West Point, when he was a player on Army’s team in the late 1960s. He said a portion of the West Point prayer that all cadets were required to learn provided a good summary of the personal courage that individuals often need to confront and change racism.

“Choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong,” he said, quoting from the prayer.

Steele urged the Lawrence crowd on Monday to not treat the day — a federal holiday to honor King — as a day off, but rather as a “day on.”

“The Martin Luther King holiday reminds us that we should always be on,” he said.

Steele said he believes there is a simple prescription that people can follow to help make the change that King, who was assassinated in 1968, so often called for. In addition to having the personal courage to confront wrongs, Steele said King preached on the importance of communication.

“Talk about it,” Steele said. “Nothing gets solved if it isn’t talked about.”

Steele said a third part of the prescription is what he likes to call “situational awareness.” Thanks to a 23-year career in the Army, Steele said he’s able to come up with an acronym for about anything, and that includes the idea of situational awareness. He told members of the crowd to remember T.O.P.S. when they are struggling to understand a situation.

“The Other Person’s Shoes,” Steele said. “If you remember that, it might help you decide how you want to manage a situation.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Vanessa Thomas performs a solo as part of the 16th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast on Jan. 16, 2023 in downtown Lawrence.

Steele’s father served in the military before desegregation of the forces in the late 1940s, including with units at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley that were still referred to as Buffalo Soldiers, a term that originated with Black cavalry units that served in Indian Wars on the frontier.

Prejudice and racism were frequent obstacles for his family, which made it all the more powerful for them when Steele broke a barrier by becoming the first Black football player in West Point history in a game on Sept. 17, 1966.

“For them,” Steele said of his parents in the stands, “history had been made. For me, no.”

Steele said it was still just a game for him, with all the normal worries and stresses than any athlete has during a contest.

“I was worried about the guy who was going to try to knock my head off,” he said, pointing to a photo from the game where Army played Kansas State.

Years later, the meaning of the game is not lost on Steele, as he and his wife have watched their children advance in professions that would have been hard to imagine generations earlier. Their daughter, Sage Steele, is a national television personality, serving as a co-host of the popular SportsCenter program on ESPN. Their son Chad Steele is senior vice president of communications for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.

“Whatever gets in the way, keep moving forward,” he said of advice he’s offered his children and others.

He said the need to keep moving forward individually and as a country is critical to understanding the importance of King’s life and work.

“He had a dream,” Steele said of King. “We have an obligation.”

Monday’s community breakfast honoring King was the 16th annual in Lawrence. It is hosted by the Jayhawk Breakfast Rotary Club and the Lawrence Ecumenical Fellowship.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Vanessa Thomas performs at the 16th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast on Jan. 16, 2023 in downtown Lawrence.


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