Legacy Awards Speaker, Recipients Deliver Message of Hope

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By Sophia Xiong
CCBP Graduate Assistant

Laura Ling, the award-winning journalist and author, delivered her encouraging life-experience story as keynote speaker at the 2020 Realizing the Dream Legacy Awards Banquet on January 17 in the Bryant Conference Center Sellers Auditorium before an audience of more than 400 guests.

Ling is the recipient of such prestigious awards as an Emmy, a national Edward R. Murrow Award and a Ralph McGill Award for her correspondent work.

Ling, who is the younger sister of Lisa Ling of CNN’s “This is the Life with Lisa Ling,” shared the story of being held captive in North Korea in 2009 while reporting on the trafficking of North Korean women in China. Ling and a colleague were detained by North Korean soldiers along the China-North Korea border were held captive for 140 days before being granted a special pardon and returning to the United States, thanks to the intervention of former President Bill Clinton.

In telling the story of her captivity, Ling focused on some small but shining moments.

In her own words: “One day, one of my guards had gone home to visit her family. When she returned, I asked her if she had a nice time seeing them. She said she did. But she looked kind of forlorn, and she said, I feel bad that I can see my family when you’ve been separated from yours for so long.

“Another day, I was sitting next to a guard who was crying. I had no idea why she was crying, but at that moment, I felt compelled to reach out and hug her. I knew that I could be taking a risk by reaching to a young woman whose job was to keep me prisoner. But at that moment, I just didn’t care. I reached my arms around her and embraced her. She immediately stood up, but she didn’t push me away. After a few seconds, I let it go. Then she offered me this very slight smile as if she appreciated that gesture. I also hugged her for selfish reasons. After feeling so alone, just that small physical interaction with another human being made me feel more alive.

“After learning about my sentence of 12 years in a labor camp, I was held in a room, crying uncontrollably. Another guard came to me, and she said something that I would never forget. ‘Laura,’ she said, ‘always have hope.’ These are women who were cold and mean to me when I first met them. They looked at me as their enemy, and I looked at them as perfect models of the North Korean propaganda machine. But I mention these moments because I do think that they are testaments to what can happen when people from enemy nations, on opposite ends of a spectrum — brown, white, blue state, red state…. What happens when we take that chance to engage with those we consider as different? We might find out how much we actually have in common. We may understand that shared humanity that truly connects us all.”

Ling also introduced her current work as a host on the E! Network. “Our report, which took us all across the country, where we met young people, was meant to let them know that there is hope,” she said. “Some of us here in this room maybe are dealing with our own personal obstacles that have left us feeling confused and alone, maybe even depressed. I think that we can all agree that we are living during a time of deep polarization. As Americans, we have faced tremendous challenges. Ethnic, racial and religious tensions divide us. The immense gap between the rich and poor continues to grow here in the U.S. and around the world. But no matter how difficult things get, we just have to, as my North Korean guard once told me: Hold on to hope. It will lead us through to brighter days.”

This year’s Realizing the Dream theme, “Through the Courage to Live a Life of Purpose,” aims to remind people that King’s courage laid a foundation that both empowered and served as a catalyst for others to do their part, long after his passing, as King’s quest for social justice continues.

Before the banquet, an informal meeting was held for students from Stillman College, Shelton State Community College and The University of Alabama to meet with Ling. During this time, Ling shared about her journey of how she became a journalist, as well as her recent work, which tries to reach out to the new generation through new forms of media, using podcast and other media, for example, as well as old media to tell stories in new ways to the digital generation.

Following Ling’s address, three individuals received Legacy Awards. Emma Mansberg received the Horizon Award for her all-around community involvement. Tuscaloosa city attorney Chris England, the first African-American in Alabama history elected chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, received the Call to Conscience Award. Mary Allen Jolley received the Mountaintop Award for her lifetime of promoting education and equal opportunity.

This was the 12th year of the Legacy Banquet. Previous speakers include network correspondents Byron Pitts, Juan Williams and John Cochran, newspaper columnist Cynthia Tucker, now Senator Doug Jones, and television and movie star Danny Glover.