Mum Bett was born into slavery in colonial New York in the mid-1740s. She and her sister were given to her owner’s daughter years later and moved to Massachusetts. While unable to read or write, it is believed that she often heard her new owner, a wealthy judge from Sheffield, speak about the Sheffield Declaration. 

Approved in 1773, the declaration stated that “mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.” Language of a similar sentiment would later not only be used in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but also in the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780. 

Desiring her own freedom, she would later turn to a prominent attorney, Theodore Sedgwick, who had actually assisted in drafting the Sheffield Declaration, asking his help to gain her freedom. Sedgwick took the case and argued that the language as written in the Massachusetts Constitution prohibited enslavement. The case was won, and in 1783, Massachusetts outlawed slavery in the state. Mum Bett, who would change her name to Elizabeth Freeman, would live nearly another 40 years as a free person before dying at age 85 in 1829.

At the USS Midway Museum’s 10th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration celebration, guest speaker, Brig. Gen. James Ryans, commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, drew a parallel between events in Massachusetts more than 230 years ago and Dr. King’s fight for social justice and civil rights in the 1960s.

“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would write the same argument in his Letter from Birmingham Jail,” said the general of the letter Dr. King wrote in April 1963. “For me, what that means is, that the constitution, that I have sworn to protect and defend, enables the argument of freedom and equality. Some of the most famous abolitionists that we know in our history, eventually came to that conclusion, which is, we’re not fighting against the constitution, we’re fighting to help ourselves as a nation realize and live up to the values we have stated in the constitution, and that is the argument in which we get to our freedom.”

Brig. Gen. Ryans spoke these poignant words before more than 100 guests at the celebration dinner, presented by Midway’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, held on the carrier’s hangar deck.

“When I think about Dr. King’s life, I sum it up in three keywords that exemplify the lessons I learned from his actions: courage, hope, and love,” said the general, who has served in the Marines for more than 35 years including multiple combat tours. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers exhibited a courage that I can only hope to live up to.”

Brig. Gen. James Ryans, commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, addresses the audience at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration on Midway.

Along with honoring the life and society-changing accomplishments of Dr. King at the dinner, Midway also presented its annual Bridge Builder Award to Dr. John E. Warren, the publisher of the Voice & Viewpoint, and the Outstanding Community Service Award to Leonard Thompson, the president of M.A.N.D.A.T.E. Records.

The Bridge Builder Award recognizes individuals and organizations that exemplify the core values of the museum, which include community service and working to improve relationships, understanding, cooperation and inclusion among various ethnic communities. The Outstanding Community Service Award distinguishes those who are deeply involved in a variety of community outreach programs in San Diego.

Community Service Award recipient, Leonard Thompson, president and CEO of M.A.N.D.A.T.E. Records, and Voice & Viewpoint publisher, Dr. John Warren, who received the Bridge Builder Award.

“I can’t find all of the words to thank you,” said Dr. Warren, who has been publishing the Voice & Viewpoint for nearly 40 years. “I’m humbled. There are awards, and then there are awards. But this is something that is special to me. My heart is truly warmed by this outpouring.”

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