By Christian Morrow
With storm clouds threatening as participants from the Kingsley Association, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, and friends and family of past honorees assembled in the plaza above the East Busway in East Liberty to dedicate a new Spirit of King plaque, Kingsley Executive Director Malik Bankston assured the audience that all was well.
“Jimmy—I call him Jimmy because I’ve known him since long before he was a pastor—but Rev. James Harris has assured me that he has the weather on lock,” he said.
And he did—after Rev. Harris gave the invocation, the ceremony went off without a hitch, and without a drop of rain.
Bankston—whose Kingsley Center hosts the annual Spirit of King ceremony, honoring those who best personify the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and who have impacted the region in the areas of civil rights, leadership, culture and education—explained that the award was spearheaded by then-Port Authority Equal Opportunity Manager Katie Everette-Johnson, who received the posthumous Spirit of King award in 2018. The former plaque, which was mounted at the bus stop at Penn and Shady avenues, was taken down when the Port Authority redeveloped the entire area into a plaza connected to the busway below.
The new, larger plaque, made of brushed bonze and brass, and set in stone amid the plaza’s greenery, contains the names of all the honorees from 1989 to 2019 and has room for twice that many more.
More than one of the speakers commented on the symbolism of placing the plaque above the busway—because its full name is the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway.
“Where we’re standing is a bridge,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “It’s a bridge of opportunity because a busway connects people to education, to jobs and other opportunities—just like the honorees on that plaque were bridge-builders. I want to introduce another bridge-builder, Port Authority CEO Katherine Kelleman.”
Kelleman noted that the first event she attended after coming to Pittsburgh—before she’d even officially started, was the Spirit of King ceremony.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it—transportation is a civil right, it’s a human right,” she said. “From Selma to the Freedom Riders to that bus right over there, opportunities don’t matter if you can’t get to them. We want to make sure everyone can. That’s our mission.”
Spirit of King planning committee member and New Pittsburgh Courier Advertising Coordinator Ashley Johnson then gave some historical context prior to the unveiling of the new plaque, noting that three years before the annual ceremony began, a tree was planted, and a parklet was dedicated at the former East Liberty bus station to Wilhelmina Byrd Brown—the first Spirit of King honoree.
“Through the desire to continue this historical tribute…something much greater has been created. It is something that will withstand time; and serve as a constant remembrance, to all who visit or pass through, of the legacies that positively impacted and shaped the City of Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities,” Johnson said. “This area will also function as a reminder that each one of us should be dedicated to fighting for equality for all, so that this city will truly be the most livable city for all, and not some.”
Following the plaque unveiling, a symbolic, newly-planted tree was dedicated at the site.
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This article originally appeared in the New Pittsburgh Courier.