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MLK Day celebrated in New London, Norwich

Determined marchers and jubilant indoor celebrations highlighted the Martin Luther King birthday holiday in New London and Norwich Monday with the shared message: "We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."

Dozens gathered outside 70 Huntington St. in New London Monday morning to march through downtown to Shiloh Baptist Church on Garvin Street, where crowds filled the pews for a special holiday service.

In Norwich Monday afternoon, more than 30 marchers gathered at City Hall to hear opening remarks and to ring the city's Freedom Bell, erected in 2013 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The marchers were joined by dozens more at the Evans Memorial AME Zion Church for songs, prayers and words of encouragement. Keynote speaker, the Rev. Fannie B. Stokes, used Biblical cautionary tales about reaching the promised land, but not working hard enough to truly possess it.

With the recent rise of bigotry, racism, sexism, discrimination and racial tension, Stokes said, Americans fighting for equality cannot rest from their work.

"My brothers, my sisters, my friends, my families, my neighbors, fellow citizens," Stokes said. "I submit to you today, that although we may have arrived in the Promised Land, there is yet work to do. it is not enough to arrive. We must possess. ... The work is far from complete."

Stokes repeatedly asked: "Are we free, or free enough?"

Before marchers stepped onto the street in New London, the Rev. Michael Cagle from the Southeastern Connecticut Ministerial Alliance told the crowd that since King's time, "we've come a long way but we still have a long way to go."

The Rev. Mary Smith-Gomes of Evans Memorial AME Zion Church in Norwich led the New London group in prayer and said she was glad to see that people of "not just one color but of many colors" came out to march.

As she marched, Smith-Gomes said she was happy that folks came out in droves despite the bitter cold temperatures Monday.

"We've got some hope in this community," she said, pointing to 5-year-old Molly Wrighton of Groton, marching with her grandmother, Theresa Cattalani of Groton.

"We never know who she'll grow up to be," Smith-Gomes said of the child.

Cattalani, who is white, married her late husband, who was black, in 1982. Together they had five children and she has five grandchildren, ages 5 to 12.

Cattalani said that as a mother and now grandmother to biracial children she has always made it a point to celebrate black history. She tries to teach her grandchildren about history, faith and the importance of education, as well as discrimination they may face.

"It's important for them to know their history and understand what black people have gone through," she said.

Cattalani said growing up white in Waterford she was relatively unaware of issues of racism, until she met her husband.

"I started seeing how he was treated unfairly sometimes," she said.

When the two married, they faced hurtful comments and judgment. After these experiences she made it a point to speak out against racism.

"People need to realize that there really is discrimination against people of color," she said.

Tom Clark walked just behind Cattalani and the young Wrighton during the march and said he has been marching on MLK Day in New London for at least 15 years. Clark said he participates in the march to acknowledge racism that he believes still exists in his own community and to let people know that it won't be tolerated.

"We live in a society, especially right here in downtown New London, that is very much a part of a racist legacy," said Clark, who carried a sign for St. James Episcopal Church. "It is beyond criminal that the community doesn't do something about it."

During the service at Shiloh Baptist Church, New London Mayor Michael Passero echoed a similar sentiment.

"We are now in the second decade of the 21st century and we live in one of the richest states in the union," said Passero. "We are a city where half of us live comfortably and half of us must choose daily between basic necessities."

The mayor noted King's sentiment that challenging issues of racism and poverty required acknowledging issues in American society as a whole.

"The time has come to mobilize once again and embark on the movement that Dr. King started for us at the end of his life," the mayor said.

Speaking after the mayor, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, acknowledged New London's diverse population.

"The beauty of the city of New London is its diversity," said Courtney. "And until every citizen in our country can value every citizen in our country, we have a lot of work to do."

Courtney addressed the Norwich marchers a short time later, recalling that last year's march had to be canceled because of much colder conditions.

"We live in a very divisive and polarized time," Courtney said in Norwich. "The city of Norwich does a really good job, in my opinion of demonstrating what inclusion can do in a community in terms of bringing people from different walks of life, different races, different faiths together. That is really what I think we really have to spotlight and appreciate here today."

The Norwich marchers sang "We Shall Overcome" as the group turned the corner from Franklin Street to McKinley Avenue, as onlookers cheered encouragement and raised arms in support.

AME Zion Pastor, the Rev. John Gentry reminded the Norwich audience inside the church that when people most struggle in life, they turn to God with songs of hope. He led the congregation in the song, "Where Could I Go but to the Lord?"

In New London, between speakers, musical performances by the Shiloh choir and band brought the crowd to their feet as they danced and clapped along. Nearly the entire congregation stood to give a standing ovation to New London native Ariana Stanberry, a sophomore at Berklee College of Music in Boston, who played her saxophone during the service.

Donna Madina, of Waterford, was one of many attendees who was dancing in her front-row pew.

Madina said the service was "very uplifting" and also provided her and the rest of the community "with a ruler to measure where we're at in our movement toward equality and peace."

The Rev. Dr. C.L. Stallworth, senior pastor at the East End Tabernacle Church in Bridgeport, told the New London gathering that he knew "the struggle for justice is a draining struggle" but urged congregants to strive for "mountaintop moments" of "visibility and vision" when they could clearly see the issues facing their communities and what their communities could become.

Stallworth paraphrased King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, replacing his command to "let freedom ring" with shouts of "let victory ring."

He then led members of the crowd to turn to one another and shake hands, telling one another "we've got the victory," before singing lyrics often considered to be an anthem of the civil rights movement, "We shall overcome someday, black and white together," as they all joined hands.

t.hartz@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com

 

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