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MLK Speaker: In Times Of Great Moral Conflict, Celebrate Difference-Makers

Ryan Denham
This year’s MLK Awards Luncheon guest speaker will be James A. Knecht, a judge on the Fourth District Appellate Court.";

At a time when government fails to address the big problems—gun violence, racial injustice, economic inequality—the contributions of individual difference-makers are even more worthy of recognition.

That’s one of the messages Judge James Knecht will deliver Jan. 20 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Luncheon. The 42nd annual event will honor four MLK award recipients, chosen by the Normal and Bloomington Human Relations Commissions, for their efforts to break down barriers in the community. 

Knecht, who’s been a judge 42 years, said our Trump’s-latest-tweet news cycle is allowing the government to break its promises, big and small. That plays out in places like Puerto Rico, he said, where about half of residents still don’t have power after a September hurricane.

“We’re not addressing the ills of society that government has a responsibility to address,” said Knecht, who’s been on the Fourth District Appellate Court since 1986. “And that bothers me a great deal. Those kinds of things are important, and the people that get recognized at the MLK luncheon, and those in the audience, those are the people who are addressing these kinds of issues.” 

"We're not addressing the ills of society that government has a responsibility to address."

Knecht, a Lincoln native and Illinois State University graduate, is a past MLK award-winner himself. Outside the courtroom, his lengthy record of community service includes time with the Beyond the Books Educational Foundation, the Illinois Family Violence Coordinating Council, and the National Advisory Board of the Corporate Alliance To End Partner Violence.

Knecht’s career is full of moments where empathy stemmed from deliberate action, not just emotion. When he was elected to the Appellate Court (with less daily human interaction than a trial court), he intentionally chose a Bloomington office (with his wife’s encouragement) located near a Planned Parenthood clinic. That put him face-to-face every day with people facing difficult, life-changing events. It’s kept him grounded, Knecht said.

So did his early-career work for the Illinois Department of Mental Health, before he became a judge. He worked with kids at the Lincoln State School (later called the Lincoln Developmental Center), including many black youths from Cook County whose poverty, lack of schooling, and meager opportunities relocated them “hundreds of miles away from home.” He organized sports (therapeutic recreation) for them.

“I think I learned a lot about empathy and compassion and some of the ills of society that I believed I could help correct,” Knecht said. “So when I saw those human problems in the courtroom, I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t put off. I had the ability not to be depressed by it, or take it home with me. And I always tried to treat each case like it was the most important there was, because it was the most important for the people before me.”

Knecht is still working on his remarks for the Jan. 20 luncheon. In light of world events, he’s been thinking about a lot about a quote attributed to King: “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict."

"This is a time of great moral conflict," Knecht said.

Knecht, an elected Republican, said he’s troubled by President Donald Trump’s “petty, vengeful, vindictive” demeanor in contrast with the respected symbol of the presidency. Knecht said he tries to view politics through the perspective of history. We’ve survived tumultuous episodes like McCarthyism and Japanese internment camps, even if they’ve stained us for decades after, he said.

“As long there’s no nuclear button pushed, I’m confident that the republic will survive, and we’ll be here as a society long after someone else is in the White House,” Knecht said. “I trust government and the art of politics, but as with everything else, it depends on who’s there. Who are the humans that are engaging in the process to help govern us in a way that benefits us all and makes us better and stronger than we were yesterday?”

Tickets for the Jan. 20 MLK luncheon are still available. Here are the 2018 award recipients:

Jordyn Blythe, University High School
“I Have a Dream” Award

Blythe, of Bloomington, serves as student body president and participates in band, theater, choir, and the award-winning speech team. She helped found the Black Student Union, where she works with others to raise awareness regarding social justice issues. Outside of the classroom Jordyn enjoys working with Jack and Jill of America, volunteering with Home Sweet Home Ministries, Home of Hope, and Serve Plus One, a nonprofit she helped found.

Xavier Higgins, Normal Community West High School
“I Have a Dream” Award

Higgins, of Normal, has proven himself to be a dedicated student and athlete, his commitment to serving others is exceptional. Xavier has complimented his education with numerous volunteer and leadership experiences, dedicating time to the Best Buddies Program, Not In Our School Club, and Freshman Mentoring program. 

Lorenzo Marshall (posthumously)
Adult Human Relations Award

An active volunteer in numerous professional and community organizations, Marshall positively impacted many lives in our community. For years, he coordinated the annual Juneteenth celebrations, working tirelessly to bring the community together in observance of a day commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.

At State Farm Insurance, where he was employed for 40 years, he took pride in the mission of the African American Forum Employee Resource Group. His passion for educating, mentoring, and helping everyone feel welcome touched many lives.

Andre Hursey
Adult Human Relations Award

Hursey, of Normal, has taken it upon himself to be a positive mentor and serve those in need. For years he has volunteered and assisted many organizations including the Boys and Girls Club and the Western Avenue Community Center.

He’s also a familiar face at Bloomington Junior High School and Normal Community West High School where he regularly volunteers. Earlier this year he established the Jule Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is helping children reach their potential in and out of the classroom.

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Knecht:

GLT's full interview with Judge Knecht.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.