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Norwich, New London celebrate Martin Luther King birthday

Norwich and New London marked Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday on Monday in different ways, with New London religious leaders opting for an online event, while Norwich participants donned winter coats, scarves, hats and masks, as much for facial warmth as COVID-19 protection.

Cold wind and rain blew from Norwich Harbor into the Market Street parking garage, where about 50 people gathered to unveil the region’s first complete Public Art for Racial Justice Education mural Monday, as speakers emphasized the need to stand up for the rights depicted in the artwork.

The cold didn’t stop participants from lingering to admire the 142-foot-long mural painted on the side of the city-owned garage and point out their favorite images. The work features images of international, national and local figures who have played key historical roles in advancing human rights.

The wall includes Cato Mead, the first African American to enlist on the American side in the Revolutionary War; Samuel Ashbow, the first Native American to die on the American side in the Revolution; David Ruggles of Norwich, a noted abolitionist who helped enslaved people to freedom; Frederick Douglass, a famous abolitionist; James Lindsay Smith, an escaped enslaved man who settled in Norwich as a successful businessman, and Aaron Dwight Stevens, an abolitionist from Norwich who joined John Brown's failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Va., and was hanged.

Also depicted on the mural is the Civil War Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment; Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV of Salem, who helped about 2,500 Jews flee France during World War II; Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, raised in Norwich, an international human rights activist in Argentina from 1958 to 1984; Virginia Christian, the first elected African American and woman to the Norwich City Council in 1965, and Jaswant Singh Khalra, Sikh human rights activist from 1952 to 1995.

The logos of Norwich police and fire departments and Norwich Public Utilities, American flags and the scales of justice complete the work.

Public Art for Racial Justice Education was founded by the Rev. David Good and quickly expanded to include projects in several southeastern Connecticut cities and towns, with dozens of volunteers.

Rabbi Julius Rabinowitz, representing the Norwich Area Clergy Association, told the gathering how art through the centuries helped people understand messages from the Bible and other faiths. Norwich, he said, was now adding to the collection.

“Art can be a source of inspiration,” Rabinowitz said. “It can give voice to that which cannot be expressed in words. One of the wonderful things about art is that it is so accessible regardless of age, ability and background. This prayer that is about to be unveiled seeks to address the underlying issues of racial injustice in our beloved community, as well as many of the related stories that cannot be separated from it.”

Artist Emida Roller said the community came together this fall to paint portions of the mural indoors that would be erected as soon as the weather warmed enough. She described how participants “would run to the wall” as soon as the temperature rose above 45 degrees, and then race back inside when the weather got cold to work some more, to make sure they finished on time for Monday’s unveiling.

People passing by the mural Monday shouted out words of encouragement and “good job!”

Following the unveiling, about 35 people continued to Norwich City Hall for opening remarks before marching through downtown streets to the Evans Memorial AME Zion Church for the indoor program.

Norwich NAACP President Shiela Hayes said she and co-event organizer, the Rev. Gregory Perry, monitored the weather forecasts and COVID-19 trends to determine whether the in-person event could proceed as planned. Hayes reminded participants that the freedom marchers of past decades braved sub-zero temperatures, 100-degree weather and many other physical obstacles to voice their message.

“And they did not have all the fine things and warm clothing we have today,” Hayes said.

There was no march in New London again this year, but a special Martin Luther King Jr. service was hosted by Shiloh Baptist Church.

“While this service is virtual, it’s still meaningful and powerful and impactful as we recall and we recollect that which was done in his service to his church and his service to community and his service to humanity at large,” said Bishop Benjamin K. Watts, senior pastor at Shiloh.

The service featured a fiery sermon by Rev. Dr. Franklin Richardson, pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Also featured were Rev. Michael Cagle, president of the Southeastern Connecticut Ministerial Alliance and member of the Walls Clarke Temple AME Zion Church, Rev. Sandra R. Adams of Mount Moriah Fire Baptized Holiness Church in New London and Birse Timmons, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund.

Timmons said after King was assassinated in 1968, local New London high school students walked out of school to City Hall.

“Many thought all hope is gone. Where do we go from there. Out of this tragedy came hope,” Timmons said.

After King’s assassination, Dr. William Waller and wife, Eunice Waller, of New London offered a $100 scholarship to an African-American student representing the ideals of Dr. King.

“That small gesture moved other community leaders … to start a trust fund for a permanent scholarship fund,” Timmons said.

The trust has since handed out 190 scholarships and grown from the $100 single scholarship to $20,000 scholarships over four years. Last year, thirteen $20,000 scholarships were awarded to African-American students.

New London Mayor Michael Passero also gave a message, calling it “a trying year of political and social division in our country.” He talked about the racial divisions in the country and the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Dr. King’s doctrine of nonviolence calls upon us to redouble our efforts to strengthen the institutions of our democracy. That work requires us to continue to identify and cleanse this institution of systemic and institutional racism," Passero said.

The Garde Arts Center on Monday evening hosted a free show, “Martin Luther King Day Concert for Healing,” performed by the New London Community Orchestra.

The show consisted of three parts: works by historic and contemporary Black composers; a performance by area jazz musicians; and a presentation of civil rights anthems, featuring vocalists. The night was scheduled to end with sing-alongs of “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Staff reporter Greg Smith contributed to this report.

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