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New London march honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

New London — From the steps of City Hall, Bishop Benjamin K. Watts of Shiloh Baptist Church on Monday reflected on 30 years of involvement by the community to honor the memory of the late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He said aspects of both New London and the nation have changed in the decades since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a national holiday.

“At the same time, the social issues that plagued the rest of the nation continue to plague us here,” Watts said. “We hope this is the beginning of a community conversation to make southeastern Connecticut a better place.”

Nearly 200 people, including children being towed in wagons and a group carrying a Black Lives Matter banner, set out from City Hall to the Shiloh Baptist Church in remembrance of King. The Southeastern Connecticut Ministerial Alliance sponsored the march.

Police closed off State Street as the group, singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” made its way first to the entrance to the Superior Court building on Huntington Street. It was a moment, Watts said, to reflect on the issues of injustice as they relate not just to African Americans, but all Americans.

He cited the case of Ethan Couch, a white teenager who was sentenced to 10 years of probation for a drunken driving accident in 2013 that killed four people and injured several others. His attorneys argued Couch suffered from "affluenza" and couldn’t understand the consequences of his action because he grew up privileged.

“That case is important because all lives matter. Those families did not get justice,” he said.

He compared Couch’s sentence to that of Plaxico Burress, a black player in the National Football League who accidentally shot himself in the leg and received a prison sentence.

The group arrived at Shiloh for an energetic mix of prayer, music and speeches from community leaders that included New London Mayor Michael Passero and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

The Rev. Florence Clarke, pastor of Walls Clarke Temple African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New London, said King’s legacy made a difference worldwide and his death left a void “like a mountain that was moved and has not been able to be replaced.”

The Rev. Marcus Luter of Beulah Land Church of God in Christ, president of the ministerial alliance, said that with looming presidential elections it is a crucial moment for people to let leaders know "there's still work to be done," on issues of social justice and "criminal injustice."

Citing the words of King, Luter said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Passero said he hoped to help build a city government that reflects King’s ideals. In his closing remarks he cited the last sentence of King’s letter from a Birmingham jail: “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

Carl Astor, retired rabbi of Congregation Beth El in New London, reflected on King and on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a civil rights leader who had walked with King in the civil rights march in Selma, Ala. He said Heschel considered King a "Navi," Hebrew for "prophet."

Following the service, nearly 80 people gathered at the church’s Family Life Center for what Sylvia Baird, head of the southeastern chapter of the Connecticut Health Foundation, called a “Chicago Dinner”-style forum. Baird said the meetings started in Chicago in the 1990s to address racial tensions.

“What part of ‘The Dream’ have we achieved?” was one of three questions posed to participants, who were seated in groups of 6 or 8.

The idea was to get people from all walks of life together at a table with food and have a conversation, Baird said.

Other questions included “Do black lives matter to black people?” and “Can racism be eliminated in our lifetime?”

The questions were posed not only to elicit conversation but also to spark action, Baird said.

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: @SmittyDay

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