BELOIT - Attorney MiAngel Cody told Beloit community members gathered at Beloit Memorial High School on Monday that she had prepared two keynote speeches for them ahead of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

One was about the United States being on the right path toward true equality. The other presented a less rosy picture, arguing the country still has a long way to go.

"I'm asking you Beloit," Cody said, "Do you want to hear the lie, or do you have to hear the truth?"

The people offered a resounding call for honesty.

Cody said Americans must confront uncomfortable truths in order to incite real change, particularly when it comes to fixing social justice issues, systemic racism and inequality.

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Breakfast was centered on a theme of "Breaking the Chains, Living the Dream."

The sold-out event included readings from poetry contest winners, a dance symbolizing breaking chains and becoming free by the Knightingales Dance Team and a Hip-Hop Across the Curriculum Performance by McNeel Intermediate School students.

Multiple local, state and federal officials showed up Monday, including Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Rep. Mark Spreitzer, Rock County Sheriff Troy Knutson, Sen. Janis Ringhand, Beloit City Council President Regina Dunkin and members of the City of Beloit police and fire departments.

Dunkin said for the first time the City of Beloit had officially recognized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a city holiday.

Baldwin said the Beloit community has long pushed for social reform.

Citing a quote by Dr. King, Baldwin said, "We all came here on different ships, but we're all in the same boat now."

Kaul said education can transform lives, making it critical to expand various programs to help historically underserved and less privileged populations. He also pointed to redistricting of voting maps and an ongoing Wisconsin legal fight to remove more than 200,000 names from the state's voting rolls as steps backward on equality.

"We can make our system fair, and we can make our communities safer," Kaul said, calling for increased investment in diversion programs in the criminal justice system.

Rising Knights Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) College Tour Co-Founder Regina Hendrix, one of the event's organizers, said King Day represents a chance for all people to come together as one and embrace equality.

"It's all about unity," Hendrix said.

Hendrix attended college with Cody and said it was an honor to bring her to Beloit to share her message with local citizens.

Cody has defended hundreds of people in federal court and won freedom for at least 33 prisoners serving life sentences for drug offenses, including six presidential clemencies.

In her keynote speech Monday, she said even as people are still serving life sentences on drug charges, she passed a marijuana dispensary on her way to Beloit from Chicago.

Cody said many people say they support criminal justice reform. But she pressed the audience on whether they would support Middle Passage reform, slavery reform or segregation reform.

Instead of comfortably tweaking the justice system to help a few people, Cody challenged community members to use their voices and seek sweeping change to create a better society for everyone.

"We cannot reform something that has not yet been formed," Cody said.

Cody said that only by speaking up, turning to activism and never settling for less than absolute equality can Americans truly live the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In closing, Cody said she wrote an open love letter addressed to all women of the world after a crowd of people chanted "send her back" about U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar at a rally for President Donald Trump in July 2019. In that letter, Cody said she urged women of all backgrounds to "never go back" and to always use their voice to fight for what is right.

"All of us are important. All of us have a voice," Cody said.