UMass Dartmouth English professor Robert Waxler and retired New Bedford elementary school teacher Dorothy Lopes were awarded the university's Martin Luther King, Jr. Drum Major Award at the fifth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast on February 2 at the Woodland Commons Community Center.
"So much of what Dr. King fought for still requires our active engagement: Economic justice, peace, true brotherhood. That is why we celebrate those people who today continue to be drum majors for justice," said UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack.
Salome Thomas-EL, a nationally recognized educator who has motivated hundreds of inner city Philadelphia students to stay in school and go on to college, was the keynote speaker. Thomas-EL has taught in the Philadelphia School District since 1987. Some of his students at the Vaux Middle school went on to win world recognition as eight-time National Chess Champions. His best-selling autobiography, I Choose to Stay, is being developed into a film by the Walt Disney Company.
Thomas-El said, "If we are going to improve our community and our country then we have to decide that we're going to help one another. Too many people focus on living their own lives instead of focusing on the people who are reaching out for help."
He also touched on the life of Martin Luther King. "Dr. King wasn't a talk show host. He didn't know basketball. He wasn't a rapper. He had a PhD before he was twenty five," he said. "Young people should pause and think about their role models today. If we are to break the cycle of poverty we have to teach young people that the most important job they will have when they become adults is being somebody's mother or father."
It was on February 4, 1968, just two months before he was assassinated, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and said, "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness."
Dr. Waxler co-founded the Changing Lives through Literature program, which offers convicted criminals the chance to discuss classic works of literature as part of their sentencing and probation, in 1991. Changing Lives programs have spread across the Commonwealth and other states around the country, from its humble beginnings in the New Bedford Court System. Studies have shown that the program greatly reduces recidivism rates.
Dorothy Lopes spent 17 years as a teacher at New Bedford's Carney Academy before retiring in 1989, and she helped establish the city's first charter school. In her acceptance speech, Lopes said, "I like what I do and my reward is doing it. I never looked for accolades and when I heard I had been nominated I said, 'Who did that?' But it's a blessing to be able to do it."