FITCHBURG — The legacy and impact of the late civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could be felt reverberating throughout the city Monday, as it paused to pay tribute.
“The time is always right to do right … and mobilize against oppression,” said keynote speaker Stephanie Williams, chief diversity executive at Mount Wachusett Community College. Her message was conveyed to the large crowd gathered at the Fitchburg Senior Center for the 24th annual Montachusett MLK Coalition celebration.
“Courage calls out to all of us,” Williams said.
Montachusett MLK Coalition President Linda Mason started the program which was filled with moving performances and spoken word, orations, and prayers. “As we reflect and remember … may we be inspired through speech and song,” she said.
Rev. Annie Belmer, the new pastor at First Baptist Church said it was her “honor” to emcee the momentous occasion in the city she now calls home. Recognizing the crowd which included local and state leaders, residents, and students, she introduced Mayor Stephen DiNatale as the first speaker.
DiNatale talked about the “tumultuous times that existed” in the 1960s he remembers well, including the assassinations of King, President John F. Kennedy and his brother, presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy.
“Dr. King was not only a man of God, he was surely sent from God,” DiNatale said, adding King was “the catalyst for change” and “organized diverse leaders” from all walks of life and brought them together to fight for civil rights.
He spoke about the infamous March on Washington, where a quarter of a million people including civil rights leaders such as King gathered on August 28, 1963, in our nation’s capital to demand an end to segregation, fair wages and economic justice, voting rights, education, and long overdue civil rights protections.
“Such a movement was not widely accepted at that time,” DiNatale said of the march before noting a “narrative and agenda” by the federal government to label King as “the leader of a hate group.”
“He was not pursuing hate but basic human rights for all,” he said.
DiNatale’s remarks were followed by an invocation by Rev. Dario Acevedo of St. Joseph’s Church, who mentioned the unveiling of “The Embrace” sculpture in Boston last week, a tribute to King and his wife Coretta Scott King, who was also deeply involved in the civil rights movement.
“She said the legacy of her grandparents is alive,” Acevedo said of the Kings’ 14-year-old granddaughter Yolanda Renee King’s remarks at the unveiling ceremony. “It’s a legacy that we have received and one that we must pass along to the generations.”
The reverend read a prayer by King that included the words “give us the courage to do your will,” followed by everyone in attendance being invited to sing what is known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Belmer noted before the stirring rendition that the song was performed for the first time by 500 school children on Feb 12, 1900, in celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
Mason came back to the podium to recognize Black trailblazers who passed away in 2022 including NBA legend Bill Russell; Bill Owens, the first Black senator in Massachusetts and “one of the first to call for reparations for descendants of Black slaves,” Tuskegee airmen Charles McGee who died on Jan. 16 at the age of 102; and Sydney Poitier, the first Black actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor.
Mason encouraged everyone to read through the key civil rights anniversaries and events noted in the front of the program, a timeline of important events from 60 years ago, saying she “thought it would be helpful in reflecting and accessing where we are today.”
U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan spoke via video and shared that while “it’s easy to look at the partisanship and decisiveness today … and throw up your hands,” she quoted a letter King wrote from a jail cell during which he penned “In some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
“He held onto hope,” Trahan said of the civil rights leader. “Every time we lean into the ‘not too distant’ future he mentioned, we get a little closer.”
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern thanked the Montachusett MLK Coalition and all involved with organizing the event and praised King for bringing people together. McGovern spoke about one of the issues he addresses in Congress, hunger, and how along with the disproportionate effects of COVID is one of the “disparities that are the failure of this country … that all have the same root — racism”
“Racism is about power and politics … that system has been institutionalized,” he said, before going on to say that to stop racism, “You can’t just tell people not to be racist, you have to teach people to be anti-racist.”
“We need to remember that Dr. King was not just about words,” McGovern said. “He was impatient, he was about actions. Our job is not just to make people feel comfortable … we need to disrupt racism in our personal choices … and especially our political choices. All of us can play a role in shaping the future. Let us be impatient and let us be resolute in our mission.”
Belmer called herself a “proud momma” while presenting the praise choir from her church, who marched and swayed in unison to the front of the hall singing “I Like the Dreams of the Future” with beautiful harmonies. A young woman read some of King’s words in between verses of the song before the chorus made a grand exit singing themselves out.
Mason then introduced Williams, who gave a 20-minute impassioned speech concentrating on her theme, “…the Courage to Be Great,” where she spoke about King and how it’s important to remember who he was as a man, not just an icon.
“The legend of Dr. Martin Luther King has been gentrified … sanitized,” Williams said, pointing out that many of the issues he boycotted “still exist today.” She spoke of how during his civil rights journey, he was “deemed the most dangerous man in the country by the FBI.”
“MLK had very radical views throughout his life,” she said.
Williams also shared some “lesser known facts” about the leader, including that he was born Michael before his father was inspired to change both of their names to Martin Luther after the German Protestant leader. She added King attempted suicide at the age of 12, skipped several grades and enrolled at Morehouse College at 15, and got a C in public speaking, a tidbit that drew incredulous chuckles from the crowd.
She also revealed that King spoke at over 2,500 events during his lifetime, that he was jailed 29 times while fighting for civil rights, was the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35, and that his own mother was also killed by a gunman six years after her son was assassinated — while she was playing the organ at church.
Williams said “most often the fight for civil rights is unpopular” and that contrary to popular belief stemming from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, “he did not want us to live in a colorblind society.”
“Don’t get complacent,” Williams urged. “Sure, we’ve made some strides here and there, but we have a long way to go.”
She posed the question, “What would MLK say today?”
“We know he had a dream, and we know he worked tirelessly to make that dream a reality before he was assassinated. What are you doing for others? All of us have a role in speaking out against injustice … ultimately, I have faith in the power of people.”
Belmer then asked everyone to stand up and sing “Happy Birthday” to King before students from the Fitchburg State University’s Upward Bound program reflected on what Martin Luther King Jr. Day means to them. Youth from the sophomore leadership team and senior leaders helped out with the event and shared their thoughts.
“I admire how brave Dr. King was to speak out,” said Gardner High School senior Dellabee Gagnon, who attends Mount Wachusett Community College full time.
Leominster High School senior Darranise Hunter, who grew up in Memphis where King was assassinated, said “We can’t just ignore what happened in the past.”
She quoted one of the most well-known portions of his “I Have a Dream” speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and imparted, “we can’t just ignore what happened in the past.”
Hunter said she is not immune to racism and proudly declared that she will stand up for herself if she’s “treated badly” but that she will take a page from King’s peaceful actions and “kill you with kindness.”
“I carry his spirit with me every day.”
Fellow Leominster High School senior Chrissy Evans said it was “hard to putting into words” what the day means to her as King was “such an influential figure.”
“If we want change then we must recognize our faults,” she said prior to FSU student Delaney Lora reciting Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s poem “New Day’s Lyric” almost entirely from heart and with great power and passion in her voice, which drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
“We are learning / That though we weren’t ready for this / We have been readied by it. / We steadily vow that no matter / How we are weighed down / We must always pave a way forward,” Gorman penned in the poem she released at the beginning of last year.
Mount Wachusett Community College student Nasih Thomas eloquently delivered his own spoken word creation, “Modern Ghandhian Methods,” after verbalizing that “it’s important to note it’s an old movement with new energy” of civil rights. “Disrupt what you do not stand for.”
You could hear a pin drop when Evans and Hunter closed out the profound program by singing a duet of Andra Day’s song “Rise Up.”
“We are going to walk it out and move mountains … I’ll rise up in spite of the ache … and I’ll do it a thousand times again for you.”
Belmer spoke for the crowd when expressing “that was just a tearful moment and a cheerful moment” of the inherent emotion conveyed through the young women’s performance and offered a word of encouragement to those gathered before Elm Street Community Church Pastor Dr. Steve Mayo gave the benediction.
“May you walk this road but not alone.”