King's message marches on, marches strong

Amir Ross, 5, of Norwich, watches from the balcony during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Day Service at Shiloh Baptist Church in New London.
Amir Ross, 5, of Norwich, watches from the balcony during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Day Service at Shiloh Baptist Church in New London. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

The annual Martin Luther King Day march from New London City Hall to Shiloh Baptist Church Monday was paced by a song.

Before any speeches by the assembled clergy and politicians, Bishop Benjamin K. Watts, pastor at Shiloh Baptist, led the group of about 70 marchers in an a cappella rendition of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."

After the singing trailed off, Watts asked the crowd to eschew frivolity on the federal holiday, and instead reflect on King's struggle for racial equality and human rights.

"Today is a day of service and commemoration," Watts said.

In Norwich, meanwhile, organizers of the 16th annual Martin Luther King Day program had an unusual choice for the keynote speaker - a rabbi.

Rabbi Charles Arian of Beth Jacob Synagogue, who was surprised himself by the request, said he turned to his friend, Brother Joseph Hemphill, a member of the Evans Memorial AME Zion Church, where Monday's service was held, for context.

Hemphill told him: "You know, what Dr. King did, he didn't just do for the black people,'" Arian quoted to the applause and cheers of the more than 100 people gathered Monday for the annual service that followed a march through downtown.

Arian took the audience on a tour of history, from ancient times to the Civil Rights movement, when King marched arm in arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 - captured in a famous photo.

Challenged to teach what the entire Torah meant to a pagan skeptic, Rabbi Hillel said: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary."

Arian brought the congregation to silence when his lessons turned to news. He recalled a visit he and nine other rabbis made to Haiti in 1993, when the U.S. government was turning away boats of desperate refugees fleeing political strife in the impoverished nation.

The rabbis, none of whom knew one another prior to the visit, were asked why they came and to a man recalled the story of a 1939 ship called the St. Louis that left Europe carrying Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Cuba turned them away. President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned them away from New York Harbor and they were sent back to Germany, where they died in the Holocaust.

"In our day, Hillel's teaching is not enough," Arian said. "It is not enough, because it is merely passive. And as both blacks and Jews learned so painfully within the memory of many sitting here today, it is not enough to merely personally refrain from doing evil. … And so I would add a corollary to Hillel's maxim: What has been done to you, do not let be done to another."

Pastor Barbara White led an offering for Haitian relief with $20, asking everyone who could to match the donation in the baskets held at the front of the church.

In New London, Watts also asked the marchers to show "their love and compassion," to Haiti and the church took up an offering for Haitian relief efforts.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney told the crowd that the people of Haiti "will see the goodness that's inside the American people."

During the two-hour service at Shiloh Baptist, a parade of speakers took the pulpit to pay tribute to King, who would have been 81 years old on Friday.

Mayor Rob Pero told the crowd about a conversation he had that morning with his daughter about the history of segregation and blacks forced to ride in the back of the bus.

"My daughter told me that she learned what happened then 'wasn't fair,' " Pero said. "As a parent, you love with something sinks in."

New London Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer, who as teenager attended the famous 1963 march on Washington, said that King's message is relevant to strengthening public education and increasing literacy.

"Improving education is the civil rights struggle of our time," Fischer said.

At the close of the New London service, Watts instructed the choir to sing "We Shall Overcome" once again, but asked those in pews to cross their arms and hold hands as King's supporters once did.

Fundraisers:

All money collected at the Norwich service Monday will be added to a daylong Haitian relief fundraiser planned for Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Norwich Free Academy and co-sponsored by NFA, the local Haitian community and the NAACP.

On Sunday, Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich will host fundraiser yoga classes from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. with all class fees and donations going to Doctors Without Borders for Haiti.

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