A capacity crowd attended the 19th annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday morning in the West Hartford Town Hall Auditorium.
By Ronni Newton
Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a school and municipal holiday, as well as a Federal holiday, but in West Hartford it’s much more than just a day to catch up on sleep and shop the sales, as any of the hundreds who attended the town’s 19th annual celebration Monday morning at Town Hall will attest.
Seats were in short supply as town leaders, state officials, and adults and children from throughout the community gathered for music and impassioned speeches. The celebration was sponsored by the West Hartford African American Social & Cultural Organization (WHAASCO), the Town of West Hartford, West Hartford Public Schools, and the West Hartford Human Rights Commission.
As he welcomed guests to the program, West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka gave a tribute to John Doar, the keynote speaker at last year’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. Doar, a former leader of the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department and the father of Town Council member Burke Doar, had shared his personal accounts of interactions with Dr. King. It was the last public appearance for John Doar, who passed away in November 2014.
“Today we celebrate Dr. King as a revered icon with a national holiday in his honor,” Slifka said. But he urged the audience to keep those things in perspective and recall that when King was working, he was a “poorly paid minister in his 30s with a wife and four kids.”
NBC Connecticut reporter Audrey Washington, who served as emcee for the program, said that “without Martin Luther King, I would not be here today.”
The invocation was delivered by Frederick “Jerry” Streets, a former Yale University chaplain who is now an associate professor of social work at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford. “My, my, my – what a vision of hope,” Streets said as he asked the youth in the audience to join him at the podium for the non-denominational prayer.
The student perspectives are always a major highlight of West Hartford’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. This year, Kaitlyn Jones from Conard High School and Lydia Henning from Hall High School were selected for the honor of speaking by a team of social studies teachers.
Both students delivered poised and passionate speeches, and both received standing ovations from the crowd.
Jones spoke of how Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideals impact how she lives her own life. Highlighting the message of King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech, Jones used the word “dream” as an acronym for those ideals: “D” for determination, “R” for resiliance, “E” for emancipation, “A” for altruistic, and “M” – the one she said has had the strongest effect on her life – for magnanimity.
“We must learn to be magnanimous like Dr. King, and hold forgiveness in our own hearts,” Jones said.
Henning, who is white, said that although she does not necessarily face it herself, she feels as if it is her responsibility to “work toward dismantling oppression.”
“It’s not the people we should be despising but the beliefs they hold,” Henning said. She said it’s important to have conversations with people who have a different perspective, because “otherwise we will never be able to effect change.”
Henning said that she is disturbed when fellow Hall students wear clothing with Native American imagery and speaks openly with them about it. “We need to start conversations about injustices … because that is the only way we will effect equality.”
WHAASCO member Booker DeVaughn introduced Hartford Foundation for Public Giving President Linda Kelly, the event’s keynote speaker.
Kelly, who grew up in North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s, said she was personally impacted by Martin Luther King Jr.’s work. “We have moved forward from ‘separate but equal,’ and I can tell you that even then they weren’t equal,” Kelly said.
“So where do we go from here?” Kelly asked. She said she has been “privileged to see how good people can and do have a positive impact.”
She urged the audience to “never doubt that a small group can change the world; they’re the only ones who can.”
“Take a stand against injustice, anywhere and everywhere,” Kelly said.
The Hall High School Jazz Combo of Nick Paul, Joey Siegel, and Peter Hoyle, directed by James Antonucci, provided the prelude to the celebration. Select choir “Voices of Bristow,” conducted by Karla McClain, punctuated the speeches with a performance of “Shine on Me.”
Conard High School’s “Voices of the World” choir, under the direction of Sam Eurich, performed “Wanting Memories” and “Balm in Gilead,” and then led the audience in a touching and beautiful group singing of “We Shall Overcome” to conclude the celebration program.
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