About 250 people participated in a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech in a touching program at West Hartford Town Hall Tuesday night.
By Ronni Newton
Earl Exum, who was born the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, told the crowd of about 250 at West Hartford Town Hall Tuesday night that West Hartford is a great example of the “beloved community” that King spoke about in his “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech.
That speech was delivered 50 years ago Tuesday, on April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple in Memphis on the night before the civil rights leader was fatally shot.
Exum, who lives in West Hartford with his wife, Tammy, and their three children, said he participated in a civil rights pilgrimage last month that included a stop at the very place that King gave what would be his last speech.
King’s “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop” speech specifically addressed the Memphis Sanitation Strike, but was also a call for “unity, economic actions, boycotts, and nonviolent protest, while challenging the United States to live up to its ideals.”
As Exum spoke, a diverse group of 52 West Hartford residents lined up for a community read of the “Mountaintop” speech, and he urged the audience to listen closely to King’s words, his call to help and not just keep walking by people, and to “reflect on the message of building a beloved community.”
West Hartford sets a great example, Exum said, and “when people come together they’re powerful.” A better community, he said, is one “where all can live in dignity.”
Tammy Exum then stood at the microphone, as a recording of King speaking began to play. She took over, and one-by-one, 51 other community members read passages until the speech was completed.
“I was really blown away by the spirit and the power in the room,” said Dr. Tracey Wilson, town historian and one of organizers of the event hosted by the West Hartford Human Rights Commission.
She said that she and other committee members imagined how the evening would unfold, but it exceeded their expectations.
“The thing that I found so exciting and interesting is that people had parts [of the speech] – some had even memorized them – and each gave special meaning to the part they read,” said Wilson. She said that most of the passages were randomly assigned, although the easier parts were given to the kids and those with religious themes were assigned to clergy members.
The 52 readers ranged from as young as age 10 to a few in their 80s, Wilson said. They were diverse in more than just age, and included people from West Hartford’s business community, schools, clergy, community activists, and elected officials, from many races and ethnic backgrounds.
“I really enjoyed being a part of the presentation,” said Park Road Association Co-President John Paindiris, who was one of the readers. “I’ve never done anything like that, and I was honored to be asked on behalf of the Park Road Association.”
The 6 p.m. event had been planned for the courtyard area in Blue Back Square, but due to forecasted rain, was moved into Town Hall. It was combined with a related art project sponsored by the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence that started at 5 p.m., and organizers agreed that Town Hall auditorium, secured for the event by Renée McCue at the last minute, worked out great and gave the children in the audience an appropriate activity in which to engage during the speech.
Jane Lehman is chairman of the Board for the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence, which organized the “beloved community” intergenerational art project, a project that the organization has held in other communities.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s second principle of non-violence is that “the beloved community is the framework for the future,” Lehman said. Because King’s “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech references the “beloved community,” she said it was an appropriate combination for the commemoration.
“We give everyone a block and some markers and we ask them to draw something that is special to them,” Lehman said, focused on beloved – someone important – and/or community – a place or group. The resulting diverse assortment of wooden blocks is then combined into a “beloved community” that looks different every time it’s rearranged.
What the beloved community signifies, Lehman said, is a place “where everyone can live to their fullest potential, whatever that is, and where everyone’s differences are celebrated.”
About 60-70 people participated in the art project, Lehman said, and many took their blocks home. An example of a “beloved community” is on display in the Noah Webster House’s window showcase space between the West Hartford Library and Goldberg’s Gourmet.
“I’m thrilled,” Lehman said of the overall event.
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