Holiday speakers in Norwich, Hartford say Dr. King's work still unfinished

Ellen Brown, right, of Norwich performs Monday with fellow members of the Voices of Zion during the Norwich Branch NAACP annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration at Evans Memorial AME Zion Church.
Ellen Brown, right, of Norwich performs Monday with fellow members of the Voices of Zion during the Norwich Branch NAACP annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration at Evans Memorial AME Zion Church. Tim Martin/The Day

Political and community leaders gathered in Norwich and at the State Capitol Monday to not only remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but to talk about how much more needs to be done to achieve what the slain civil rights leader talked about.

"Today, despite all the progress we have made, if you are of color you are more likely to be unemployed, to live in poverty, to have been be incarcerated, to become a parent as a teenager and yes to become a victim of gun violence," said state Attorney General George Jepsen at the state Capitol ceremony.

"When a young man of color has his life put to risk when he walks to a convenient store wearing a hoodie, society has a lot further to go," he said.

In Norwich, references to the morning's presidential inauguration and King's speeches dominated the ceremony, as speakers tied together the struggles of the Civil Rights movement to today's challenges.

The Rev. John Lancz, pastor of the United Congregational Church in Norwich, called Monday's participation by representatives of several local and distant churches and synagogues and local towns "a reminder that we are all working together toward justice and peace."

About 50 people attended the annual ceremony at the Evans Memorial AME Zion Church, about twice the number of those who participated in the preceding march through cold downtown streets as they sang "We Shall Overcome."

The Rev. Gregory Perry, pastor of the Greeneville Congregational Church, led the march reminding participants that several hundred thousand Americans were in Washington, D.C., to witness "the marvelous second inauguration of our president."

Lancz recalled how King was calling for a "true revolution of values" in America. Lancz looked up and added: "we're still working on that."

Rabbi Julius Rabinowicz of Beth Jacob Synagogue, a newcomer to the popular ecumenical event, said he was not used to the resounding audience response to his greetings and affirmation of his words. Rabinowicz read a psalm describing how discarded stones from one building were used as the cornerstone of new construction.

"Those who were rejected are becoming the cornerstone of our democracy," Rabinowicz said.

Perry said King could have lived the economic American Dream for himself and his family. Instead, he took up the fights of those around him, with the compassion his father had taught him, subjecting himself to arrest, church bombings and threats.

"He could have been alive today if he just lived the American Dream for himself," Perry said.

At the state Capitol ceremony, leaders of Connecticut Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission, state officials, nonprofit honorees and others spoke of how King inspired their work but also how more had to be done to end poverty and violence.

James Williams, chairman of the commission, said "On this day of service, national service, let us all reflect upon the ways that we can be of service to our community and neighbors as we strive to create the beloved community that Dr. King envisioned."

The executive director of Christian Community Action, Bonita Grubbs, quoted King who said, "We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway."

At Grubbs' nonprofit, staff spend much of their time being Good Samaritans by helping those who don't have food, housing or hope, she said.

But the nonprofit is also focused on helping people take the steps they say they want to take to make their lives and their children's lives better, she said.

"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial," Grubbs said, as she quoted King. "It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

She told the legislators "there are more things to be done in these hallowed halls to restructure the way in which we provide services, to restructure the way in which we deny individuals opportunities and to deal with the racial inequalities that exist in our state."

Denise Merrill, secretary of state for Connecticut, said the brutal history of the civil rights fight must be remembered, especially today.

"Dr. Martin Luther King was fighting against poverty of our children, and here we are in a state, it's the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world and we have thousands of children living in poverty in our state," she said. "Our job is not done and violence, I mean we of all people know about that right now don't we."

As leaders asked for more to be done to end violence and inequality and racism, they also said any act, small or large, was better than inaction.

"One small act can really have an amazing ripple effect and can really bring us together, and it seems that might be a very important message that is necessary as we reflect on all the tragedies that have occurred in our nation," said Diane Lucas, president of Glastonbury MLK Community Initiative.

c.bessette@theday.com

j.somers@theday.com

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