Kemba Smith-Pradia tells her story to the brunch audience on Monday
Photographer: Wayne Thomas
Graduate Student Senate President Tracy Kelly (left) and Vice President for University Advancement Bryan Benchoff (right) were among the silent marchers on Monday morning
Photographer: Sonya Paclob
Participants in Monday's silent march approaches Baker University Center
Photographer: Ben Siegel
Jan 17, 2012
By George Mauzy
The message that Kemba Smith-Pradia delivered to her Ohio University audience of more than 300 people on Monday was simple: Strive for greatness by serving humanity.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day brunch speaker backed up her messages by quoting slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout the program.
Smith-Pradia, author and former prison inmate, explained how her life spun dangerously out of control in the 1990s while she was a freshman at Hampton (Va.) University. She said her troubles began when she became trapped in an abusive relationship with a violent drug dealer and felt there was no safe way out.
In a brief time period, she went from being a model first-year college student from a hard-working family to a convicted felon sentenced to 24.5 years in a Connecticut prison for drug-related charges. Her sentence was the result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws being applied to first-time non-violent drug offenders at that time.
Smith-Pradia thanked the media and her family and friends for bringing national attention to her case, which eventually led to a national movement of people and organizations demanding her release from prison.
President Bill Clinton granted Smith-Pradia clemency in December 2000 after she served 6.5 years of her sentence. She is now a self-proclaimed "voice for the voiceless." She told the audience that she still has a case of survivor's guilt, which keeps her fighting for the many women who remain unfairly incarcerated.
Smith-Pradia said an important step in the fight against these laws was President Barack Obama's August 2010 signing of the Fair Sentencing Act. The act reduces the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, eliminated the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine and increases monetary penalties for major drug traffickers.
"Dr. King said 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,'" Smith-Pradia said.
Smith-Pradia said she has learned from her mistakes and told the audience to not tolerate abusive relationships, remain focused on their goals and avoid poor decisions. She also urged them to not be afraid to take a stand for justice.
"Dr. King said 'there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because conscious tells him it is right,'" Smith-Pradia said.
"Today we live in a country where so much is going on, but there comes a time that we have to step outside of our ordinary routines and make a commitment to serve and give back to make everything right."
Smith-Pradia quoted King as saying, "'The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.'"
As she closed, Smith-Pradia left the audience with one last inspirational word from King and asked them how far they will go to serve.
"Dr. King said 'everybody can be great because anybody can serve … you only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love,'" Smith-Pradia said.
This was the third consecutive year that Ohio University honored Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a weeklong celebration.
Other 2012 MLK Day celebration events included a panel discussion that discussed the life and work of King after the historic March on Washington, student-centered community service projects, art activities for local children and the annual silent march on the morning of the holiday.