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Vivica Fox waves to the audience as she is welcomed to the stage at the 40th Anniversary Martin Luther King, Jr. Banquet Sunday in Waterloo. Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart and his wife, Cassandra, look on.

WATERLOO — As a high school senior in Indianapolis, Vivica A. Fox decided she wanted to go to California and become a star.

As she headed to Hollywood at age 17, though, there were some naysayers.

“They said, ‘You’ll be back, you’ll be back in six months,’” Fox recalled Sunday evening during her keynote address at the Martin Luther King Jr. banquet. The actor, now 54, defied those doubters and returned a success.

“Defining the Dream Through Success” was the theme of the event, held at Electric Park Ballroom, honoring the legacy of the slain civil rights leader. Presented by Social Action Inc., this was the 40th year since the fundraiser benefiting programs for local disadvantaged youth began in 1979.

Organizers said the 560 tickets sold in advance pushed this year’s program to the highest attendance in its history. The star power at the front of the ballroom may have had something to do with that.

Early in the evening, Fox stepped onto the dais to a standing ovation as Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart introduced her. “It’s going to be an awesome, awesome time,” he told the capacity crowd, admitting to being “a little star-struck” in her presence.

The rest of the attendees also appeared eager to see the celebrity and hear what she had to say.

“I’m here to testify to you that my dreams to be successful are a result of Martin Luther King and his followers and all they sacrificed,” Fox told the audience.

Her decades-long career has included roles in movies like “Independence Day,” “Kill Bill,” and “Soul Food” as well as the hit TV show “Empire,” among many others. Clips of Fox’s Hollywood roles shown on a screen before she spoke brought the audience to its feet. Once on stage, she recited a litany of that work.

That success allowed Fox to “donate over $130,000 to my momma’s church” as a way to give back, she noted. The congregation was able to build a center to provide after-school programs for underprivileged children.

More recently, it also allowed her to release her first book, “Every Day I’m Hustling,” last year. “It’s basically a motivational memoir,” said Fox, noting she talked about “how hard it is in Hollywood to be a woman in your 50s.”

But the “resurgence” in her career and life, she said, had to do with the people around her. “You have to learn to build yourself a dream squad, those who see opportunities that you may not,” Fox explained. One of those people, her publicist, encouraged writing the memoir — something she hadn’t ever envisioned doing.

She hadn’t ever envisioned this weekend’s speaking engagement, either. She was contacted by Waterloo native and Benjamin Banneker Watch and Clock Co. founder Derrick Holmes as organizers looked for someone to make the 40th anniversary event special.

“When Derrick called and said we want you to come and be the keynote speaker in Waterloo, Iowa,” she said, “I had never heard of it. Coming here, I really didn’t know what to expect, to be honest with you.”

Between the banquet and a Saturday VIP meet-and-greet event and book signing at the Brown Derby Ballroom downtown, Fox said she saw a “quality of hearts” among community members that resonated with her own Midwest values.

“You all have a wonderful community, a true representation of all the dreams that Martin Luther King had for us,” she said.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Courier

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