New London leaders reflect on MLK's message

New London — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words, written more than 50 years ago, are relevant today and speak to "our continuing struggle for social justice in the 21st century," Mayor Michael Passero said on Monday.

Passero, who was among the speakers at Monday's annual Martin Luther King Jr. march and service at Shiloh Baptist Church, reflected on the importance of King's message of love and justice, as the country faces division and a reported rise in hate crimes.

Passero said he recently reread "Letter From Birmingham Jail," which King wrote to religious leaders in Alabama in 1963. In the letter, King addresses "moderate whites" and writes that: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

Passero said the letter forced him to consider whether he is merely that "moderate white" who is actually "the great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom," and he called the letter "sobering" because he "hoped to have been an ally in this struggle, still ongoing 56 years after Dr. King sat in that Birmingham jail."

Passero said King "presents a daunting challenge" to those who want to be allies and calls "upon us to be extremists." Passero said King's letter is "more relevant than ever because the white moderate is more prevalent than ever." 

"I must choose, we must choose, in Dr. King’s words, “not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremist we will be," Passero said. "Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”"

His speech was greeted with loud applause.

Bishop Benjamin K. Watts, senior pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, spoke about the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, reminding people not to forget. The shooter walked into Shabbat morning services and shot and killed 11 people and injured at least seven more.  

Watts said there seems to him to be "a revival of hatred, anti-Semitism, anti-other anything," and people thinking "my theology is the only one that works" and "my way is the only way."

"And it seems to me that nothing will change if we don't change," Watts said. Watts then invited Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, to come up to speak, and they embraced.

Picking up on Passero's theme, Fischer noted that King "was very aware that northern liberals were not necessarily 'all in'" with integration. Fischer said last year New York was the state with the most segregated school systems in the country and that Connecticut has not yet succeeded in fully integrating its schools.

"I cannot help but encourage us all in the Northeast to continue to strive not only for love and not only for compassion, but for the ability to see the human being in each and every person, whether they're black or white or brown," Fischer said.

Prior to the service, a group of more than 50 people, with people in the front carrying a "Black Lives Matter" banner, walked along singing "We Shall Overcome" and "This Little Light of Mine" from City Hall to the Shiloh Baptist Church as temperatures hovered in the single digits. They started with a prayer at City Hall and then paused for a prayer in front of Superior Court on Huntington Street.

The Ministerial Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut, under the leadership of the Rev. Michael Cagle of Walls Clarke Temple AME Zion Church, organized the annual march and service.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, spoke about how King's speeches still ring so powerfully today, at a time when the FBI reports a 17 percent rise in hate crimes in 2017, the horrific mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018, and words of white nationalism popping up.

Courtney reflected on King's powerful words about the right to vote. He spoke about a proposed bill that would bring about political and campaign finance reform and reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

City Councilor Anthony Nolan said the marchers carrying the banner for King in the frigid weather represents "actions speaking louder than words."

"With that said and done, it's not over yet. There is so much more for us to do and so much more for us to carry," he said, especially with education, criminal justice reform, health care, and the biggest thing: voting.

"I am grateful for another opportunity to stand before you and to remember and to remind us that we're still in this struggle," said the Rev. Florence Clarke of the Walls Clarke Temple AME Zion Church. "The Lord has brought us a mighty, mighty long way, but we still have a long road."

Elder Tarishia Martin, associate minister at Shiloh Baptist Church, prayed for "unity and harmony in a divided society," while the Rev. Lloyd W. McKenzie, Jr., pastor at Walls Clarke Temple AME Zion Church, said: "We still need to help one another."

k.drelich@theday.com

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