Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was a world of diversity, so it was only fitting that people expressed their appreciation for him Monday in diverse ways — through speech, dance and song.
The slain civil rights leader, who would have turned 84 on Jan. 15, was celebrated as a visionary and catalyst for change in a ceremony at the Empire State Plaza.
“Dr. King was a vital figure in our modern era. His commitment to justice and equality led to significant changes in how we live and relate to each other in this country,” said Alphonso B. David, state deputy secretary for civil rights.
The year 2013 is particularly significant because Aug. 28 will be the 50th anniversary of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. An excerpt was played at Monday’s event.
Cordelia Wallace, senior associate pastor of Agape Cathedral in Brooklyn, recalled attending the speech as a 9-year-old girl.
“At that age, it didn’t mean much to me to be among the crowd. I recalled this man making a loud sound and speaking a prophetic word,” she said.
Wallace encouraged the crowd not to look back at what the country lost in King’s assassination but look forward at what he gained for the country.
Quoting from scripture, Wallace said that in the book of Genesis in the Bible, Joseph receives dreams.
“You’ve got to take a moment and you’ve got to dream another dream,” she said.
Wallace added that everyone has the responsibility to keep that dream moving. It is not a time for complacency, she said, and there is much cause for celebration. The country’s first black president, Barack Obama, on Monday took the ceremonial oath of office for a second term.
But Wallace said much work remains — another looming fiscal cliff deadline, devastation from Superstorm Sandy and other disasters and ongoing violence.
She longed for the day when young men — both black and white — are not in jail and when teenage girls are not becoming mothers.
Every person has something great inside them and it has to come out, according to Wallace.
The event was broken up into various segments, reflecting the various themes of King’s message — action, equality, hope and unity. Musical and dramatic performances were interspersed with speeches.
The three-person group Too Deep Entertainment Inc. mixed quotes from King with calls for children to stop the violence.
There was also a dramatic presentation called “SNCC — The Meeting” written by local artist Donald Hyman about the early days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which were on the front lines of the civil rights movement and organized spontaneous sit-ins at lunch counters in Albany.
An actor portrayed Fannie Lou Hamer, a member of SNCC who was arrested for her civil disobedience and beaten in jail. “I still suffer from those injuries today. This is why after 40 years, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said. “You see, I decided I’m going to let my little light shine. I’m going to let my little light shine — shine, shine and shine.”
Nijel Jones got the crowd rocking with his drumming mixed with spoken verse.
“I know I wasn’t around when Martin Luther King was here. I know that I’m 11 years old, but I can show my gratitude to him with my God-given talents,” he said.
“He fought and he fought with cuts on his wrists. He fought with his mind and not with his fists,” he said.
Other performers included harmonica player Joshua King with his version of “Precious Lord,” gospel singer Tiffany Andrews-Woodside, The Buffalo State College Symphonic Choir and King and local actress Debra Quattlebaum performing “Happy Birthday” in honor of Martin Luther King.
The 2013 New York State Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award went to Herbert C. Thorpe of Rome, N.Y. Thorpe was one of nearly 1,000 Tuskegee airmen that were among the first black military pilots trained.
After leaving the Army, Thorpe went on to become a radar research engineer and was active in many organizations, including the Afro-American Heritage Association, NAACP and mentoring at-risk youth.
Thorpe recalled attending an MLK event at one of the centers for the developmentally disabled in Rome. Most of the people there did some type of volunteer service even though they had a disability.
“Dr. King would have been proud because he said everyone, everyone can serve and if you can help someone along the way, your living will not be in vain,” he said.
The ceremony closed with the traditional spiritual “We Shall Overcome.”
Renee Williams of Albany, who attended the event with her son, sister and two nephews, said the observance reminded her how far the country has come. “I never thought I would live to see a black president,” she said.
Williams said she is also reminded that Martin Luther King didn’t accomplish this progress on civil rights alone but there were other people who helped him along the way.
“It helps me to instill in my son. To treat people how he would want to be treated, regardless of the color of their skin,” she said.