Student speakers, musical performances, and a keynote speech by UConn Rhodes Scholar Wanjiku ‘Wawa’ Gatheru highlighted the 24th annual Martin Luther King Day celebration at West Hartford Town Hall.
By Ronni Newton
Monday was a day of celebrating the words and messages of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the speakers at West Hartford’s 24th annual ceremony not only honored King, but spoke to the importance of taking action and participating in the process of improving society.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor welcomed the standing-room-only crowd, which included state and town officials, students and teachers, police officers, and many others from the community. Part of participating is being counted, and before she shared some of her favorite quotes from King, Cantor urged everyone to participate in the 2020 census.
Cantor read aloud King’s words: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character. That is the goal of education,” she said. “I think West Hartford does a very good job of that – teaching what it is to be of good character, a good person, a good community member.”
She also read aloud King’s message about mutual destiny. “If we function like that we will be better … closer to achieving a beloved community.”
West Hartford Police Chief Vernon Riddick Jr. served as emcee for the celebration, and shared some of his thoughts in the framework of personal experience.
“I think Dr. King would be pleased and displeased overall,” Riddick said of the world today. “There is a lot of progress made but yet there is still work to be done.”
King would not be pleased about something that happened recently to his daughter, who just a few years ago was hanging out with a group of her girlfriends talking about dating. His daughter, Riddick said, was the only girl of color in the group.
Four of the girls were talking about discussions they had with their fathers. “Their fathers told them to make sure they don’t embarrass the family and bring home a black boyfriend,” Riddick said.
His daughter told her parents that in the moment she froze, didn’t know what to say or how to react. “I hoped that she would have done a little better but I wasn’t angry, I was just a little bit disappointed,” he said. She asked him not to interject, because the girls had spoken in confidence.
“It was a teachable moment,” he said. The girls’ fathers were all business owners, and he asked her to consider that if the men were faced with two candidates for the same job, one white and one black, who would they hire. With tears in her eyes, Riddick said, she answered that they would probably not hire the black person.
“That’s why you have to be three times better. That’s why you have to study hard, that’s why you must work harder than anybody else, just for the opportunity to hopefully be considered equal,” Riddick recalled telling his daughter.
The funny part of the story, he said: “Each one of the girls had black boyfriends,” said Riddick.
“I think Dr. King would be disappointed but I think he would be encouraged by what we see here this morning,” Riddick said of the gathering at Town Hall.
Paraphrasing King, he said, “In times when it’s calm anyone can be strong and be a leader, but you don’t know what you’re made of … you don’t know what challenges you can overcome until there’s challenge, until there’s chaos. Are you a voice of reason or do you stir up the pot?”
Riddick introduced Kalidas Sharma, a local inspirational speaker, Hindu priest, and lawyer in the Nepalese community, who read the benediction – a prayer for peace throughout the world – in Sanskrit, and then translated into English.
The annual ceremony includes perspectives of students from both Conard and Hall high schools. This year, Conard High School senior Eshe Griffith and Hall High School senior Isabella Galm were selected.
Griffith, a native of Barbados, said there is still work to be done, even in this well-educated town. “West Hartford is not all peaches and cream,” she said.
“We need more teachers that look like us,” Griffith said. “We need more open dialogue where people feel they can speak the truth about our experiences,” she said, including when students receive racist notes on their desks or feel they lack support.
She spoke of a personal experience in West Hartford’s public schools when she first moved to town and was attending Hall, and, after deciding not to stand up for the “Pledge of Allegiance,” had a conflict with her teacher. “I told her I didn’t have to, that it was my right.”
When asked to stay after class and discuss the situation, she said she told the teacher, “I refuse to stand for a country that doesn’t stand for me or my people,” Griffith said. She switched classes, and eventually switched high schools after feeling that she did not have respect from that teacher.
“That’s when I changed,” Griffith said, and transferred to Conard hoping to have a different experience. She said she knows now, as she approaches graduation, that it’s time “to feel uncomfortable” and not just accept things the way they are.
Without King’s work and dedication, however, Griffith said, she likely never would have had the opportunity to even attend school in West Hartford. King had a dream, she said, “I too have a dream.”
Two years ago she said she was shy, but now she looks forward to going to college and has been accepted to several historically black colleges, She looks forward to becoming a biomedical engineer, and hopes her younger sister can grow up being comfortable with achievement.
“It is our duty and responsibility to create change,” Griffith said. “Students like me need to be seen, be heard, given the same opportunity that others have. … The time is now and like Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘The time is right to always do what is right.'”
Galm said she has attended West Hartford’s Martin Luther King Day celebration every one of the 15 years she has lived in West Hartford, except the year when she was 3 and her 1-year-old sister was sick and they watched it on TV. Her parents have always stressed the importance of being exposed to productive conversations about race, she said.
“I’ve had the privilege to grow up in an environment that has made it a priority to make sure I know history – all of my history, not just what is taught in my classes,” Galm said, not just the “easy” history. “I have recognized the significance especially in the past few years as I have been figuring out my complicated racial identity in today’s world.”
The history of civil rights in this country has personal relevance to Galm. Her grandmother was a neighbor of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, AL, Galm said. “Mrs. Parks,” a seamstress, tailored clothes for her family. Her grandparents attended a march in Washington, DC, in 1963, and her grandmother’s cousin was once arrested with King.
“Growing up, I had all these direct connections to the civil rights movement, not just as a human observing the past, but as part of my personal family history,” said Galm. “These stories allowed me to humanize the people I read about in books in a way many people couldn’t.”
When President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, her parents kept her and her sister home from school for the day so they could watch the historic event. “We baked a cake with the Obama logo on it, we made gingerbread White Houses, wrote letters to Sasha and Malia, and watched the ceremonial festivities all day long. I didn’t really understand what was so special about this president, seeing as there had only been one other in my six-and-a-half years of life at the time. It wasn’t until four years later, when we went to President Obama’s second inauguration in DC that I realized soon there would be 8-year-old children who had only ever known a black family in the White House.”
Recently she saw the musical “Hadestown” on Broadway, Galm said, and in the lines she heard the words that to her best described King’s impact: “He could make you see how the world could be, in spite of the way that it is.”
We have come a long way, she said. “Look at me, a biracial, bisexual young woman standing here before you today. An aspiring president, about to graduate high school and head to college, thrilled to vote for the first time in April, and then again in November. I am legally allowed to marry whomever I want, if I want, regardless of race or gender. Sacrifices that have been made for this progress to be achieved are ones we cannot take for granted.”
That’s happened because people have worked hard to make it happen. “We have come so far, but not far enough to stop,” she added, when children are still kept in cages, when unconscious racial bias leads to the expulsion of preschoolers.
She urged everyone, young and old, to take action, to be engaged citizens, to vote. Young people have the ability to make an impact.
“So to the adults: support the young people in your life. Give us the tools we need, your hard-earned knowledge and wisdom, but listen to us, and give us the space to surprise you. Because we will. To the young people: you have a voice. Use it. People will listen,” Galm said.
Obama urged people to make change, not to wait for someone else to make it to happen, Galm said.
“We can change the world. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. When you think in response, ‘It is not possible,’ take a moment to look around at the people sitting next to you. If that were true, if the kind of change we seek truly cannot be achieved, would we be here today?”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said the students were a tough act to follow because of their “eloquence and power.”
He urged the crowd to consider Martin Luther King Day not just as a day “off” but as a “day ‘on’ – a day on for social justice, for the fight against racial animosity, and bigotry, and hatred which are more alive today than in many past years.”
Blumenthal quoted King: “Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” The student speakers are bringing love and light, he said, “at a time when we are potentially more divided than ever before,” the result of lack of leadership at the top of the country.
“Today is a moment of reflection, but also of action, when we need to put our action where our words are, and continue to fight for racial justice and for the love and kindness that really embody Martin Luther King. He was a fighter, but he also won the Nobel Peace Prize,” Blumenthal said.
He urged the crowd to be fighters, and be in this battle, to be engaged, to vote, and to participate.
Natalie Mendes from the West Hartford African American Social & Cultural Organization introduced keynote speaker Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, currently a senior majoring in environmental studies and minoring in global studies and urban and community studies at UConn. She is UConn’s first Rhodes Scholar, and has previously been named a Truman Scholar and a Udall Scholar, and has been an exchange student.
In her studies at Oxford, Gatheru plans to obtain dual master’s degrees – in nature and society and environmental government, and in evidence-based social intervention and policy development.
Gatheru said the student speakers show what the world can become.
“I grew up wedged between two histories,” she said. “In school I learned that the black agricultural experience was one of subjugation, riddled by centuries of slavery, of sharecropping, and exhaustive land practices. But at home I knew a different story. According to oral history my family has always been farmers.”
Her mother tended a garden at their home, transforming an overgrown plot into a fertile garden of tomatoes, into steaming pots of food. “My first contact to the environment was through those tomatoes, through food,” she said. “And through that my first interaction with the physical environment was one of love.”
From her family she learned the importance of framing, and she has sought out wisdom and courage in an uncertain world.
The year 2019 was the hottest in history, she said, with catastrophes bad enough to be given proper names. Climate change “has culled our greatest dreams into question, and people wonder if there will be a planet left for themselves, for their children, their parents, or their grandchildren.” It’s become her generation’s greatest “moral dilemma,” Gatheru said.
While 2019 was successful for her, and should have been a year of celebration, it was framed by grief. It felt “borderline sociopathic to celebrate as California and Australia burned, the Midwest flooded, Indonesia sank, and thousands of climate refugees were denied entry into the very countries that helped create the climate crisis in the first place.”
“Ecological grief” called into question everything she felt was important, and as she took to reading in search of wisdom, she said she rediscovered the language of progress and change in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but in a version of King different from who she had learned about.
“This King was more than just one singular dream, he was dramatic, unwavering,” often unliked and called too radical.
“This King … understood that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” Gatheru said. “It was in this King that I found a relentless champion for the most vulnerable … In this King I found a spiritual guide, a mentor, and most of all a friend.”
In her reading, she found words of King that offered perspective, Gatheru said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality” – which offers a fundamental challenge to lead with “deep love.”
Gatheru said that Monday’s gathering was meant to celebrate King. “I must admit I’m not sure I’m ready to celebrate Dr. King,” she said, when LatinX Americans and black Americans are subject to more pollution than other Americans, when black people represent a disproportionate share of the prison population, when babies born to black mothers are much more likely to die before the age of 1, when this state has the highest income disparity.
“When will I be ready to celebrate King?” Gatheru asked. “I don’t know, I don’t have a timeline,” she said. But at this moment, instead of celebrating it’s time to “honor him,” to live what he talked about.
“To have the courage to speak an unpopular truth, to love unconditionally without guarantee of reciprocity.” Gatheru said to her that also means confronting the history of the Rhodes scholarship, intended to support and uplift the brightest minds in the world, but created in 1902 by Cecil Rhodes – an imperialist, a racist, a colonialist, who built his fortune on the blood, sweat, and tears of the backs of South Africans.
“As I live in unarmed truth and unconditional love, my challenge for myself is that I must acknowledge this history, confront it, and hold myself accountable to it for the rest of my life.” It includes living her life in “intentional public service,” to support the communities that the scholarship’s legacy continues to disenfranchise.
“I urge us all today, tomorrow, next year and the decades to come, to continue to commemorate and honor Dr. King’s life and legacy actively, to rediscover him actively, not only as an activist and visionary but as a writer,” one of the greatest American writers in her opinion.
“I believe that we have the ability to meet darkness with light and to create a just, humane world …” to then be able to “truly celebrate Dr. King.”
Student musicians also entertained the audience, with a prelude by the Conard High School Jazz Combo, and an interlude by Sedgwick Sounds performing “The Dream Keeper” with words by Langston Hughes, and “Like a Mighty Stream.”
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Conard’s Voices of the World choir closed out the program with “Wanting Memories,” and “We Are the World 25 for Haiti,” before leading the entire audience in a rousing group singing of “We Shall Overcome.”
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