ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic County’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. service Friday was marked by a call for unity and continued work toward equality.

“We are in a community where unity should matter,” said Shalanda Austin, this year’s recipient of the county’s Community Spirit award, presented during the MLK celebration.

The award recognizes an outstanding resident who exemplifies the principles of King through their involvement in the community and their efforts to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.

Austin is the founder of the In My C.A.R.E. mentoring program, which helps coach and support local girls ages 8 to 18. She is also an author and an educator who works in the local school district and churches. Austin recently started a boys mentoring program in Atlantic City and will roll out another in Pleasantville next month.

County Executive Dennis Levinson said he was embarrassed he had never heard of Austin prior to her selection for the award.

“You’re an inspiring, extraordinary young lady,” Levinson told Austin.

Friday’s event also reflected on the legacy of King, the southern Baptist minister who fought for civil rights and social justice in the mid-20th century before being assassinated in 1968.

Levinson bemoaned the current division of the country, which he said was mostly a partisan divide.

“As the leader of the county, it saddens me that the country is so divided,” he said.

Levinson said he understands the current movements for equality, such as the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter, and reflected on the struggles of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who famously challenged the seating of an all-white Mississippi delegation during the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

According to historical accounts, Hamer was given an unauthorized hysterectomy during a minor surgery, and had been harassed and beaten for her civil rights advocacy.

“Regardless of what your political affiliation is, common sense, decency and morality should come before that,” Levinson said.

During Friday’s keynote speech, the Rev. Latasha Milton of Asbury United Methodist Church said the fight for equality is not over.

“We still have work to do,” she said.

Milton said systemic racism still exists in education and criminal justice and called upon the community to change.

“We cannot become complacent in the fight for our children,” she said. “We must channel our inner Fannie Lou Hamer spirit and declare, like she did, ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”

During her award acceptance, Austin, 45, held back tears.

“I realize that I stand on the shoulders of giants,” she said.

Austin thanked God, her family and those who have joined her in her quest, as well as those who came before her. She said she saw a need to create a village to help raise the city’s youth, and that is what she did.

“Yes, there is still work to do, reverend, but I am glad to be a part of that work,” Austin said.

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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