BLOOMINGTON — As the new executive director of the United Community Gospel Singers, Barbara Sims-Malone had a close-up view of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Gospel Festival on Sunday night at the Young Main Lounge of the Memorial Center on the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.
But that’s nothing new for her. She’s been attending the event since it was founded by her parents, James and Corine Sims, 24 years ago. “My dad had a hand in everything,” she said prior to the start of the festival. “I’m trying to carry on some of the work that they started and it’s hard. But we will because it means so much to so many. We will never let their legacy die.”
Corine died in 2007 and James died in February 2013.
Corine Sims envisioned people of all races and backgrounds coming together to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with singing, dancing and speakers professing King’s message of unity and nonviolence. A special tribute to the Sims was played at the dinner.
“We can’t forget about those that have devoted so much time and energy into this, paved the way and opened doors for so many,” Sims-Malone said.
Mid-Central Illinois Community Action executive director Deborah White also praised both.
“James was an influential, yet humble man, and was a smart and strong agent for action in our community,” she said. And Corine was an activist in her own right and a bright light for her family and every life she touched.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White was among the featured speakers and said that Dr. King was his minister in college.
“Any time I can spend time honoring his legacy, I always participate,” he said. “And Mr. and Mrs. Sims have set a record here for their giving and caring spirit and making a difference in the lives of young people in this area.”
King visited Illinois Wesleyan in February 1961 and addressed an audience of more than 500 people at the annual Religious Emphasis Banquet. He returned five years later as a national leader of the civil rights movement and the recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. There, he addressed an audience of more than 3,000 at the Fred Young Fieldhouse.
When King was assassinated in 1968, current Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner was 9 years old, but he said King’s life had a major effect on him. Renner gave the welcome to the crowd of about 300 people.
“His birthday is much more than just a holiday for me,” Renner said. “For me, it is the coming of a political age and reminds me of my political moral soul. I think this celebration is a great event and I am honored to be a part of it.”