I’m occasionally invited to emcee events. It’s not my favorite job, and I don’t think I’m actually that good at it. But, for some reason people think that if you talk for living, you’d probably pretty good at being an emcee. Sometimes that’s true. Often, it isn’t.
Birmingham just had its annual Unity Breakfast, and it’s such a big deal that just one person could never handle all the pressure and responsibility of emceeing the event alone, so they had two emcees. I was one of them. I’d not attended the event before and wondered what I was in for.
First, the turnout was great. One of the young people who served the food was standing around nervously, and I asked her if she’d done the math on how many people the room could hold. She said she had counted the tables and multiplied by 8 and figured about 2,100 people would be there. I said that’s a lot of people to serve breakfast to, and she said she was just responsible for two of the tables so keeping 16 people happy was her job for the day. I hope it went well for her.
There must have been 20 people at the head tables, yes tables, two rows of them on both sides of the podium. The interim mayor was there, all the city council, the county commissioners too. The candidates for mayor were there and I noticed they stayed on opposite sides of the room. You don’t want fisticuffs at a Unity Breakfast, for goodness sake.
The speaker was well-known local educator Dr. Ed LaMonte. Dr. LaMonte taught for years at Birmingham-Southern College. He served as acting school superintendent for the Birmingham School System some time back and he has been a friend of racial equality and fairness most of his adult life. Dr. Lamonte was honest in sharing with the crowd that he was not the first choice as speaker for this event. Organizers had tried to get the country’s new Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin to be the speaker. However, she was just sworn in to the job the week before and her schedule didn’t allow her to get back to Alabama this soon.
I was sipping on my second cup of room temperature coffee when Dr. LaMonte was introduced. He got a nice round of applause, the kind any speaker gets before folks know what he’s going to say. Ed LaMonte said a lot, a lot more than I, or anyone else, might have predicted. He didn’t start off with a joke or funny story, but rather he immediately got to the meat of what he wanted to say. He did get a pretty good laugh when he said that thankfully this long and arduous political campaign would finally come to an end the next day. Then, he talked about the future by talking about the past. Ed LaMonte knows something about education, what’s right and what’s wrong about the way we teach our children. He was honest and critical in comments about the Birmingham School System. He talked about the ongoing student exodus from the school system. He talked about the process of selecting yet another Superintendent for the system. He called the process flawed. Others have called it flawed, and LaMonte pointed out that he wasn’t the first to call it such and that we ought to take a look at the leadership of the school system and how it's operated.
Some lady in the back sneezed and you could hear it throughout the room. It was pretty quiet during this part of his talk. A couple of times he said something critical about the lack of real cooperation in our community and a few people clapped, most didn’t. A couple of times he talked about how the future won’t be much better if we don’t get a handle on educating our young people and do something about the terrible dropout rate in the Birmingham School System. A few people clapped, most didn’t.
Ed Lamont asked the question; “Where do we go from here?” No one answered; no one was supposed to. I’m guessing most folks were a bit taken back by the tone and content of Lamont’s speech. After all this is a Unity Breakfast, you sort of expect the speaker to say a lot of warm and fuzzy things about the past and the wonderful things the future holds for all of us. Ed Lamont didn’t seem too interested in warm and fuzzy. He seemed more interested in real progress, and in people taking off their blinders and taking a look at problems and challenges that we all face with clear vision.
Ed Lamont cares about Birmingham and the Birmingham area. His long record of work and service, dating back to 1964, is proof of that. On this day, he cared enough to say what needed to be said. On this day, he cared enough to speak honestly from the heart. When he finished, the crowd slowly rose to its feet to applaud his challenge. An elected official near me said to the elected official next to him, “Do we have to stand up?” The answer is… no you don’t.
I’ll see you tonight at 5:00, 6:00 and 10:00pm