Fifty Schenectady residents braved the cold State Street wind Sunday afternoon for just 17 minutes.
That’s how long it took to play Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech over crackly twin loudspeakers from the steps of First United Methodist Church. It’s also roughly the same length of time the average local can shiver in a parka before sprinting for the heated indoors.
“I know it’s cold,” said Angelica Morris, Schenectady Human Rights commissioner and organizer of Sunday’s Martin Luther King celebration, “but we timed the speech. It’s not that long.”
As the speakers hummed to life with the iconic, “five score years ago,” four young girls struggled to clutch a banner commemorating King. The wind was a bit too strong for a banner, but the girls held on admirably at the head of the small crowd.
The youngest, a 5-year-old in tiny gloves, shook and jumped up and down as King’s speech went on. The speech came to a close with an abbreviated round of muffled, mittened clapping and a stampede to the church door.
Inside, Zakiyyah King, one of the banner holders, sucked her thumb. As a 12-year-old, she’s way past the childhood habit. She was just trying to return feeling to the digit after 17 minutes without a glove.
“It was cold,” she said, “but a couple minutes of freezing is nothing compared to what they had to do to win the rights we have today.”
In the warmth, things were a bit more lively.
The commission holds the celebration every year, but this year was particularly special. Not only does the holiday mark King’s 84th birthday, 2013 is the 50th anniversary of his most famous speech and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Also, a few hours before the celebration, President Barack Obama was sworn into office for his second term. It was a very big day of race equality, which showed in the general mood of the event.
The MLK Community Choir opened with a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” straight from the Baptist pews of the deep South. In a few minutes 200 people were grouped at the front of the sanctuary.
The event was a combination of the spiritual and political. There was a choir singing Christian music, words spoken by several pastors, even a passing of the plate, but the offering didn’t go to First Methodist. It went to support the Human Rights Commission and its effort to “foster mutual respect and fight for the rights of all people,” according to Morris. There were open endorsements of President Barack Obama as God’s chosen man for the job.
It wasn’t the usual rally or the usual church service, but according to keynote speaker Leonard A. Slade Jr., Dr. King wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“King believed that for Christianity to be relevant it must strive for social justice,” he said.
Slade said King brought the country a long way down the road to equality, even after his death, but there is still a ways to go.
“If Dr. King were alive today,” Slade theorized, “he would want us to address the poverty and starvation still going on in the wealthiest country in the world, profiling, and violence in schools.”
It was a sentiment echoed by many.
“I remember in ’63 I went to Texas,” said Henry Cook. “I stopped at a Greyhound station for some food and they told me I had to eat in the kitchen.”
Cook, 67, has lived in Schenectady for 30 years. He said prejudice, while less prevalent, is still around.
“I think blacks need to get more involved in politics and in the community,” he said.
But no one seemed to dwell on any residual racism. Rather, the event closed out with a swaying, hands-clasped round of “We Shall Overcome.”