St. Francis House group commemorates MLK's 'Beyond Vietnam' speech

St. Francis House members and extended community listen while Janet Minella-Didier, second from right, of New London takes her turn reading aloud Dr. Martin Luther King's 1967 speech "Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam" under the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown New London Saturday, April 4, 2015. The group was recognizing the 10th anniversary of the Fear Free Zone created at the monument organized by SE CT Peace and Justice Network during the Mock Terror Attack held in New London by the Department of Homeland Security. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Editor's note: This version corrects the date of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech and the date of his assassination.

New London — It was a speech that for the dozen in the crowd rang true the first time it was delivered, and in some ways felt even more relevant today.

The St. Francis House extended community gathered  Saturday around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on New London Parade Plaza to commemorate the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Beyond Vietnam" speech, in which he strongly voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War.

First delivered on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, it was widely thought be the most controversial speech that King ever gave.

Afterward there was a flood of backlash against King. He was condemned by many civil rights activists, denounced by more than 100 major newspapers, and then-President Lyndon Johnson disinvited him to the White House. 

King delivered the speech exactly one year to the day before his assassination on April 4, 1968.

Saturday was the first time Grace Panko had heard the speech. Now 66, Panko was around 19 when King delivered the speech in 1967. She'd flunked out of college and was living in New Orleans, La., where she's originally from.

"I didn't care what was going on in the world," Panko said, at times tearing up while she spoke. "I was against the war, but I didn't have very strong feelings. I was clueless as to a lot of things."

Panko has lived in Connecticut for more than 40 years and said she's learned a lot about the connection between peace and justice during her time here, particularly as a member of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London, but also at St. Francis House.

She said she's also learned through the years that "Dr. Martin Luther King was not just for the black people, he was for all people. You know, I just can't get over how ignorant I was."

Gatherers on Saturday took turns reading paragraphs from King's 6,500-plus-word speech, which they read in its entirety.

Toward the beginning of his speech, King says, "I come to this great magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice."

While he goes on to touch on a variety of subjects, his speech is really led by three major themes: increasing militarism, growing poverty and racism.

After the group read the speech, Joanne Sheehan with the New England Office of the War Resisters League, asked those who so desired to share their thoughts and reactions.

"To me, it's not just about what happened all those years ago, it's about how do we take that lesson and move with it today," Sheehan said after the gathering. "There's so much that's going on around police militarization, around wars abroad, around the anti-terrorism that's still out there that we have to really find ways of educating people and addressing that, and finding our own kinds of ways of making a change."

Mike Hatt of Uncasville said the speech was compelling, but "also kind of scary that, after all this time, we're still in this struggle."

"He said in there, you know we're going to be in for long rallies if we don't get this straight. That's what's going on. We come out and we do these rallies and we try to get people to understand what's happening," Hatt said.

Several gatherers' remarks touched on the events in Ferguson, Mo., police militarization and the conflicts in the Middle East.

"We've been frustrated time after time by those in our own country who would just blindly apply militaristic mechanisms to complex problems to which a militaristic solution should not apply," said Tom Clark of New London.

The gatherers also were there to recognize the 47th anniversary of King's assassination, which is on Sunday, and the 10th anniversary of the mock terrorist event that occurred between April 4 and April 7, 2005, in New London. Several in the crowd were members of the original task force that organized a series of vigils and demonstrations against the event.

New London was one of the sites for these mock events which were part of a program mandated by Congress called Topoff, or top officials. The idea was to ensure top officials — at the local, state and federal level — were prepared in the event of a terrorist attack. In New London, the event was a simulated chemical attack in Fort Trumbull State Park.

The mock event actually started on the anniversary of King's assassination, Anne Scheibner, who lives and works at St. Francis House, said. The local peace organizers, Scheibner explained, decided 10 years ago that the "fear-free zone during the mock terror attack was to read his Riverside sermon."

"I'm afraid that the relevance of that address has not diminished," she said.

Sheehan was hopeful that the framework for a nuclear deal achieved by the U.S., Iran and five other world powers last week "will be able to go through and that we'll avoid another war and that people can see that we can work it out."

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: @juliasbergman

Anne Scheibner, right, of St. Francis House takes her turn reading aloud Dr. Martin Luther King's 1967 speech
Anne Scheibner, right, of St. Francis House takes her turn reading aloud Dr. Martin Luther King's 1967 speech "Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam" under the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown New London Saturday, April 4, 2015. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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