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Norwich Martin Luther King Jr. celebration goes online during 'historic' times

Norwich — The 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration Friday had to forego the traditional luncheon and camaraderie that usually marks the popular event, but speeches, award presentations and prayers all focused on different aspects of the historic recent months and weeks.

The theme for this year’s celebration, “When We Dare to Dream, We Strive to Build,” will be carried over to another virtual Martin Luther King Jr. Day online march and program at 2 p.m. Monday.

Speakers on Friday noted the historic racial equality protests throughout the country last spring and summer, the election of the first African American female vice president and the horrific images of the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

In his invocation, Board of Education member Swaranjit Singh Khalsa said King’s message applies just as much today as during his own tumultuous times.

“Even in today’s world, we see a lot of inequalities, disparities, injustice going on in the world,” Khalsa said. “But figures like Dr. King are very inspiring and they give us courage to do what’s right. Not just that, they give us courage to stand up for righteousness, which is very important.”

Leo Butler, diversity director at Norwich Free Academy, which co-hosted the event with the Norwich NAACP branch, said it was important to gather in some way despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We come together and reflect on the important legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Butler said, “particularly given the unsettled times we have existed in and the recent actions of the other day in our nation’s capital, our presence and our coming together is even more important.”

NAACP President Shiela Hayes noted the range of emotion she and others felt Jan. 6. As people celebrated the election of Rev. Raphael Warnock, an African American man who grew up in public housing and pastor of the church where King preached, and a Jewish man, Jon Ossoff, to the U.S. Senate in Georgia, at the same time saw “the violent attacks of mostly white mobs on the United States Capitol, Capitol police and D.C. Metropolitan Police.”

Much of Friday’s program recognized the achievements, with speeches and messages of encouragement given by several high school recipients of the annual Martin Luther King Scholarships to their successors now in eighth grade. Middle school student recipients gave their own perspectives on King and his legacy and the lasting message for today.

Karen Lau, president of the NAACP Robertsine Duncan Youth Council and recipient of an award for dedication and advocacy, said participating in the annual MLK events the past two years has been “transformative,” and last summer’s racial justice marches with participants of many different backgrounds showed “the true power and resilience of our community.”

“Throughout marches for the Black Lives Matter movement to protest racial injustice and police brutality, we honored Dr. King’s legacy of marching for justice,” Lau said.

The youth council has carried on King’s legacy by staying involved in fund drives, political debates and world issues, such as researching and erecting a banner in support of equality in Peru.

“We must have the courage to believe in the future when Dr. King’s dreams of equality will be realized,” Lau said, “and we must put in the work to tackle the challenges in voter suppression, income inequality, police accountability and criminal justice reform that lie before us.”

Keynote speaker, state Rep. Brandon L. McGee Jr., D-Hartford, congratulated the youth award winners and said during his video address that as president of the NAACP Youth and College Council at Alabama State University, he heard famous civil rights activist Rosa Parks speak to students and even served as a pall bearer at her funeral.

He called 2020 a “historic and significant year,” as the Black Lives Matter movement became one of the largest civil rights movements in U.S. history and extended to all 50 states and abroad.

“The entire civil rights movement was energized by young people,” McGee said. “... I’m here to encourage you, young people, don’t be afraid to use your voice. Don’t be afraid to step up and step out for what it is you believe.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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