King Center honoree Muhammad Yunus: “Poverty is the denial of all human rights.”

The Nobel Peace Prize winner accepts Salute to Greatness award

This August will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” speech, the landmark oratory for which he is most remembered. Since then, a couple generations of school kids have learned about King and his dream—and for many, the two ideas—King and dreaming of equality—are so conflated we forget King crusaded against what he called the “triple evils” of poverty, militarism, and racism.

So while last night’s “Salute to Greatness” King Center dinner opened with a tribute to the Dream speech, it was nice to see an award granted to a person who advocates very practical tactics for tackling one of those evils. Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winning founder of Grameen Bank and pioneer of micro lending, was presented with a Salute to Greatness award for his efforts to help the poor in his native Bangladesh and beyond.

“Poverty is the denial of all human rights,” he said. It makes people “numb” because all of their rights have been violated.

Yunus, who attended Vanderbilt on a scholarship in the 1960s, said that he saw the U.S. struggle for civil rights firsthand, and had “no idea” what it involved until he “experienced it every day in Nashville, Tennessee.”

The economist said that he had a few dreams of his own. For starters “a world where not a single person would be a poor person,” so that poverty would eventually be “put in a museum,” and considered an artifact of the past.

Like King, who put his Nobel prize money into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s work, Yunus used his 2006 award to fund a firm that develops affordable high-nutrition foodstuffs, and to establish an eye hospital in Bangladesh.

The other Salute to Greatness award was presented to Aflac, recognizing the company’s diversity and funding of the Aflac Cancer Center. (Aflac, it’s also worth noting, was an early donor to the King Memorial in Washington D.C. and contributed $1 million to that effort.)

Since the STG awards were launched in 1983, honorees have come from the ranks of the civil rights movement (Andrew Young, Dorothy Height, Myrlie Evers Williams); companies with records of diversity advocacy and/or support for King Center projects (Coca-Cola, Sara Lee, Ben & Jerry’s); and celebrity activists and philanthropists (Bono, Hank Aaron, Oprah, Ted Turner).

This year marked the first for Bernice King, youngest of the civil rights leader’s children, in the role of CEO of the King Center, and the debut of new prizes: the Coretta Scott King ANGEL award for a young activist and a youth focused program. Eighteen-year-old Alec Loorz, founder of Kids vs. Global Warming delivered an earnest acceptance speech equal parts TED talk and debate-team earnestness.

The other ANGEL recipient, James Roberson Jr., is a Birmingham, Alabama, city councilman who launched the “100 Days of Nonviolence” campaign that ran from October 2010 to the MLK holiday in 2011, during which no person under eighteen died as a result of violence. The program has been repeated annually; the third campaign is just wrapping up.

Roberson said the program was inspired by the 1963 Birmingham “Children’s Crusade,” and that he stands “on the shoulders of those who marched” then.

As an indication how far the country has come over the past fifty years, Roberson pointed out that he now can “walk the same halls of city hall” that Bull Connor strode in 1963. Five decades ago, Roberson said, his aunt was arrested for civil disobedience and locked up in the Birmingham jail at the same time as King. Today, Roberson is as an elected official of the city once synonymous with fire hoses and police dogs.