Lesser-known pioneers in the civil rights movement shaped Martin Luther King Jr. into the person he ended up becoming.
“We never look at these heroes of ours — leaders — in isolation,” said Allen B. Ballard, professor of history and Africana studies at the University at Albany on Sunday at the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission program honoring King at First United Methodist Church.
At times breaking into spirituals, Ballard gave a brief overview of the civil rights movement, which he said started with America’s birth.
“This country, which had been founded on premises of equality and liberty, held millions in slavery. And this is an amazing contradiction.”
The Civil War was fought to end slavery, yet there was another 100 years of segregation. “Black man had no rights that a white man had to respect,” Ballard said.
Despite facing injustice, Ballard said blacks founded schools and built churches to form their own sense of community.
“A black community was formed because you can’t keep a man down in the ditch unless you’re down in the ditch with him,” he said.
Then, people came along to break through the oppression. African-American figures like Benjamin Mays, who was president of Morehouse College, where King attended, and Paul Robeson, valedictorian of his Rutgers University class and singer and actor, deserve credit for paving the way for King.
Mays was a mentor of the slain civil rights leader, who would have been 83 on Sunday, and introduced him to the teachings of Gandhi and nonviolent protest. Similarly, Robeson led the fight against lynching and segregation.
Upon completing his education, King had a choice, Ballard said. He could have stayed in the North, but instead decided to return home and used his education to work with everyday people to battle segregation.
“He did turn it around. He was the instrument of the people,” Ballard said.
Turning his attention to modern day, Ballard said there is too much anger on the radio and television. Black youths have opportunities open to them now that they may not have before. “Some of these children find themselves in situations where the music around them gives them awful messages, where it’s too easy for them sometimes to use violence or to pick up guns, where they shouldn’t be picking up guns. They should be picking up books.”
Ballard was the keynote speaker at the commission’s program, which was titled “Celebrating Local Leaders: Courage and Commitment in the Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Close to 200 people attended the event.
Karim Adeen-Hasan, member of the Human Rights Commission, said like King, everyone is called to serve.
“We all have to find what it is we are called to do and we have to be the best at doing it,” he said.
Other speakers also picked up on that theme in reflecting on King.
“He had the call from God to do God’s justice and because of that, he had no fear,” said Daniel Ling, pastor of First United Methodist Church.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said one man with a vision and determination can have a large effect. He encouraged others to do the same in Schenectady.
“We all as individuals can make a difference. It may not be quite as dramatic as Dr. King, but cumulatively, if we do something together to make the community a little bit better, a little bit stronger, to bring pride here, we can have a significant impact,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, criticized the inequality in income in this country and noted that when King was assassinated in 1968, he was in Tennessee, speaking out on behalf of sanitation workers seeking a decent wage.
In between the speakers, the Martin Luther King Community Choir performed rousing numbers like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome” under the direction of Westoria Poole and accompanist Azzam Hameed.
The commission also presented a plaque to longtime member Elois Frazier, who is stepping down as chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition after 17 years.
Before the program, people braved frigid cold temperatures to march around the block to symbolize King’s 1963 march on Washington.
“Martin Luther King marched a lot of marches for people. I think we can take 15 minutes out of the day to celebrate and endure the cold a little bit,” said Marcia Mariani of Schenectady.
Members from the YouthBuild organization, including 24-year-old Wilson Taylor, were among the marchers.
“We’re looking to change our community in any way possible,” he said.
Martin Luther King Day events
Today is a federal holiday and most government offices will be closed, as well as banks, libraries and post offices. In addition, the Capital District Transportation Authority will operate on a Sunday/holiday schedule, except for the Northway Xpress Commuter Service, which will not operate. CDTA will be providing a free shuttle service for those people attending the memorial observance at the Empire State Plaza.
Most private businesses will remain open.
The following are events to honor King:
* There will be a ceremony at the Empire State Plaza Convention at 9:45 a.m. featuring remarks by SUNY Board of Trustees Chairman Carl McCall.
* From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., members of the Capital District labor community will assemble at Hackett Middle School in Albany for the 14th Annual MLK Labor Celebration.
* At the Saratoga Springs Library at 9:30 a.m., local agencies will offer information about ways to volunteer on the holiday. At 1 p.m., the volunteers are invited back to the library for a complimentary lunch. From 2 to 4 p.m. in the library’s Community Room there will be music and films relating to King’s life and a reading of quotes from his speeches and writings. Also starting at 2 p.m. in the library’s Sussman Room is a discussion of King’s views of human dignity.
* In Schenectady from noon to 3 p.m., Union College faculty and students are invited to Nott Memorial to read lines from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963.
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Categories: Schenectady County