Every American should be part of the civil rights movement and more needs to be done to ensure equality, the commissioner of the state Division of Human Rights said Monday at the state’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance.
“Civil rights is about patriotism,” said keynote speaker Kumiki Gibson, calling King one of the greatest patriots in the history of the United States.
Gibson said in her travels around the state, she’s often asked if civil rights is really relevant or needed. “My answer is always the same: Yes.”
“We’ve had two black secretaries of state serving as our face to the world, one of whom is a woman. We’ve had blacks, Latinos and women in Congress and of course now we have a black man and a white woman running for the presidency of the United States,” she said.
Still, more must be done, Gibson said, as the country is plagued with hate and inequality and Americans should not feel victorious.
“New York state has some of the most segregated neighborhoods in the country. We do need a civil rights movement and we need a strong one. And every American that believes in the principles on which this country was founded should be, must be a part of that movement. I call on you to spread the message,” said Gibson, who once served as counsel to Vice President Al Gore and was a senior vice president at the National Urban League.
Quoting the slain civil rights leader, she said everybody can be great without being Plato or Aristotle. “You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
State officials had considered downsizing this year’s MLK celebration and holding it in The Egg, but the governor’s office said that was a misunderstanding, and Monday’s event went on at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center.
State officials spoke about economic empowerment and economic justice during the two-hour program.
“Today, we celebrate the great leaders and great victories of the past,” said Gov. Eliot Spitzer. “And as we rejoice about how far we have come, I believe we must also recognize how far we still have to go. To complete our ascent to the top of the mountain to achieve a society where all people are free to make the most of their potential, we must increase opportunity, especially economic opportunity, in our society.”
Spitzer said King gave his life to achieve peace and equality for all mankind.
“Unfortunately, it is all too easy in our hectic world to allow for a holiday to pass without acknowledging its true meaning,” said Spitzer. “Today is not only a symbol of remembrance on the 79th birthday of Dr. King, but it’s also a call to action to continue his work. We are here today to ensure that all Americans, and that means all New Yorkers, have a voice in our government, in our education, in our health care, and in the communities in which we live and work.”
Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson said studies show 50 percent of black males don’t graduate from high school, and “we need the civil rights movement.”
King’s legacy and message was remembered in many ways Monday, with singing, acting, prayers, videos and readings from his speeches.
Hundreds attended the event, but the crowd was noticeably smaller than in past years.
Outside on the concourse, “Embrace the Dream” essays, paintings and drawings by students were on display about King’s message and legacy.
“If we argue, we can’t play the game. Work it out,” said Javon Morgan, 6, a first-grader at Giffen Elementary School in Albany.
Another student, Brian Cruzado, in fifth grade at School 14 in Troy, said: “Embrace the Dream. It’s not just a day. Don’t judge people by their color. Love, don’t hate.”
The program ended with the song “We Shall Overcome,” and dozens of people marched to Lincoln Park in the biting cold to King’s statue.
King, a civil rights leader, worked extensively for freedom and equality.
His last protest took place in 1968, when he led a march in Memphis, Tenn., in support of striking sanitation workers. He was assassinated several days later, and millions mourned his death.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan declared the third Monday in January a public holiday in honor of King ‘s birthday.
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