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Civil rights trailblazer provides spirituality, inspiration at MTSU Unity Luncheon

February 20, 2019

“That James Meredith was a bad dude, wasn’t he?”

That was the immediate reaction of James Meredith himself to an introductory video encapsulating the events of his life. The video was shown Thursday at the 23rd annual Unity Luncheon in MTSU’s Student Union Ballroom.

The annual tribute to local unsung heroes of color honored five people, who have made notable contributions in the areas of community service, excellence in sports, contribution to black arts, education and advocating civility. Riverdale High School’s Rickey Field was among those honored.

Meredith, who became the first African-American student at the previously all-white University of Mississippi in 1962, delivered the keynote address.

As he delivered the history of his ancestors, which included whites and Native Americans, the 85-year-old Meredith likened the drive for civil rights to a wedding compact that requires commitment to both man’s laws and God’s laws.

“The legal paper provides the legal right and responsibility of the two parties, but it is a true marriage only when the legal terms of the contract are carried out in love leading to and maintaining the marital relationship,” Meredith said.

Again referring to the Biblical teaching that “the meek shall inherit the earth,” Meredith cited poverty and the failure of people to alleviate it as a pathway to unfair treatment in society.

“The injustices of the poor and the number of poor increases over time to desperate levels,” Meredith said. “This results from the economic condition produced by the commercial and landed aristocracy. Greater inequities increase because the new elite is able to exploit the poor … Wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.”

This year’s Unity Luncheon honorees are:

• Excellence in Sports: Rickey Field, a physical education teacher, assistant football coach and head track coach at Riverdale High School. His community work has included Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee; the Fellowship of Christian Athletes; and the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

• Community Service: Martha Bigsby, a retired worker at Nissan in Smyrna. She was chosen for her volunteerism with Journey Home and the City of Murfreesboro’s National Night Out; as a member of the NAACP Executive Board and an NAACP Silver Life Member; and as a member of Providence Missionary Baptist Church.

• Contribution to Black Arts: Carolyn Sneed Lester, founder of the first Juneteenth Celebration for Murfreesboro and Rutherford County. She has participated in more than 20 plays at the St. Clair Street Senior Center and the Murfreesboro Little Theater. She also is a charter member of the National Museum of African-American History.

• Education: Frank Michello, a professor of finance at MTSU and director of the Master of Science in Finance program in the Jennings A. Jones College of Business. Michello’s research interests include emerging markets, financial accounting, market microstructure and risk management, among others. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Zambia.
• Advocate for Civility: Chantho Sourinho, a Rutherford County commissioner. A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Laos, Sourinho serves on the boards of several organizations, including Main Street Murfreesboro, Read to Succeed, Wat Lao Buddhist Temple and the Rutherford County Health and Wellness Council, among others. He is retired from the Rutherford County school system.

Jimmy Hart, director of MTSU’s Office of News and Media Relations, was presented with a special unsung staff award as a member of the Black History Month Committee.

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee said he always looks forward to this particular Black History Month celebration.

“You don’t see these individuals on the front page of the newspaper or on the networks, but they make the community what it is,” McPhee said.