Norwich — Under a ceiling strung with flags of world nations, the Norwich chapter of the NAACP hosted its 28th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration luncheon Friday afternoon to commemorate King and honor state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London.
Dozens gathered in the cafeteria at Norwich Free Academy for a program early Friday afternoon that featured keynote speaker Leo Butler, director of diversity at the school; Hewett, who received the Robertsine Duncan Memorial Award for his work securing jobs for underserved youth and with the Boys and Girls Club; and surprise guest U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
Several of the event's speakers noted the significance of Inauguration Day falling on Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday and what President Barack Obama's re-election means for the organization and for the country.
"I know on Monday (King would) be proud," Murphy told the audience, which included members of the Norwich City Council, Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom, state Rep. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and state Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville. "I also know that he'd remind us that we have a lot of work to do."
The luncheon was interspersed with musical and dance performances from NFA students as well as one student's reading of King's seminal "I Have a Dream" speech, set to hand drums.
Butler noted at the beginning of his address that King had once given 208 speeches in one year.
"I think I can do one," he said.
But he clarified that he was not there to speak about himself and his accomplishments, but rather to remember King's mission of compassion and peace, and to remind those in attendance to carry it on in the fight against poverty, violence and inequality.
"It's time to re-examine and rededicate ourselves," he said.
Butler recalled the day he learned of King's assassination in April 1968, on an unseasonably warm spring day in his native Detroit — a city still healing at the time from the deadly race riot of the previous summer. He spoke of the prevalence of violence in American society today, citing the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that killed 20 students last month.
"We've become insensitive," he said. "We must restore some sense of dignity to human life."
Upon accepting his award for working with "disenfranchised and underserved" youth in southeastern Connecticut, Hewett expressed his gratitude and recalled his humble beginnings, arriving here by bus from North Carolina in 1974 with just $150 in his pocket.
He encouraged the audience to pursue what they believe is right regardless of backlash — a lesson he said he's learned repeatedly in his career as a politician.
"When you do the right thing, you're going to offend some people," he said.
Hewett closed his speech with a simple but emphatic statement.
"Hating someone for the color of their skin is wrong," he said. "And it doesn't matter what color does the hating, it's still wrong."