Martin Luther King Day Links Past and Present Struggles for Justice
Russell Weatherspoon leads the singing of "We Shall Overcome" to conclude the 30th annual Martin Luther King Day Community Celebratin in Manchester, New Hampshire.Photo: AFSC / Arnie Alpert
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
More than 200 people filled the community center at St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Manchester for the 30th annual Martin Luther King Day Community Celebration on January 16, 2012. Led by “Emcees Extraordinaire” Jackie and Russell Weatherspoon, the Celebration included singing, reflections on the 30 year history of the event, and presentation of awards.
Woullard Lett, a community activist in Manchester since 1992 who has played a key role in organizations such as the Ujima Collective, Manchester NAACP, Manchester Cultural Diversity Task Force, and the Undoing Racism Network, received the annual Martin Luther King Award. “Dr. King’s contributions to American society are part of a long historical list of appeals, declarations and demands, by people of African descent that goes far beyond mere civil rights,” Woullard said. “During the past 400 years, the song of social and economic justice sung by the choir of insurrectionist, abolitionist and social activists, that included Dr. King’s call for justice, is best summed up by the Memphis Sanitation workers declaration, “I Am A Man.”
“The Memphis Sanitation workers’ demand for recognition of their humanity, in 1968, reflects the thrust and significance of Dr. King’s core message. It was a core message for all people, Black, White and other because it was about race; the human race,” Woullard said. He sketched a line from slave rebels and abolitionists to Dr. King, and then from Dr. King to campaigns against racial profiling, the struggles of immigrants, and the Occupy movement.
Alex Freid, a junior at UNH who has been active for several years working for peace, sustainability, and economic justice, received an award named for Vanessa Washington-Johnson Bloemen. He also used his comments to connect Dr. King’s practice of nonviolent direct action to the Occupy Wall Street movement, in which Alex has been active in recent months.
The event drew several political leaders, including gubernatorial candidates Maggie Hassan, Ovide Lamontagne, and Jackie Cilley, and Congressional candidates Joanne Dowdell and Carol Shea-Porter.
Arnie Alpert sketched the 20-year history of the campaign to win a state holiday named for Dr. King, and said the experience the movement gained can help the movement deal with issues now being raised at the State House. Cuts in safety net programs, expansion of the death penalty, attacks on immigrants’ rights, and attempts to reduce voting rights are all on the agenda of leading legislators. High on their agenda, he said, is an effort to take away rights for workers, including the very rights won by the Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.
“Will we let anyone turn us around?” he asked. “No,” the audience shouted back.
Arnie expressed similar themes in remarks delivered earlier that day at the Martin Luther King Day Breakfast in Hollis, and later that evening at a film showing sponsored by the Greater Concord Interfaith Council. He also published an opinion column in the Concord Monitor, tying Dr. King and the 1968 sanitation workers strike to legislative struggles faced now by public sector workers in New Hampshire.
As it has every year since 1983, the Manchester Celebration concluded with the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”
Other programs marking Martin Luther King Day took place in Dover, Hanover, Laconia, Portsmouth, and Nashua. Links between Dr. King and current struggles for justice were common themes. Speaking at the 28th annual Martin Luther King Day Breakfast in Hollis, Rev. Brett Snowden said the question Dr. King asked in 1967 is “still on the table. Where do we go from here, community or chaos?”
“King demanded an end to global suffering. He said humankind has the resources and the technology to eradicate poverty.” Rev. Snowden reminded the members of Southern New Hampshire Outreach for Black Unity.
“While we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy at this and other Holiday breakfasts across the nation today, let us use this time to inspire each other to activism throughout all of the year,” blues musician T.J. Wheeler told participants at a St. Anselm College prayer breakfast. “It’s important for us not be mulled into complacency and simply recite quotes from Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech turning the hard fought battles of the classic civil rights movement into purely nostalgia.”
In Dover, members of the area’s Indonesian community joined a service sponsored by the Dover Area Religious Leaders Association. Linking the historic struggles of African Americans to their own battles with persecution, they led a church full of people in reciting words from Dr. King: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”