Just a day ahead of most celebrations dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., elected officials, advocates and members of the public came together on Sunday to preach unity, love and kindness in keeping with his messages spread decades ago.
The Schenectady County Human Rights Commission's Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition hosted the 34th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration on Sunday SUNY Schenectady Community College's Carl B. Taylor Auditorium. Ang Morris, executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, said during the ceremony that the commission's celebration was the longest-running one in the Capital Region.
"Today is a good day to be in Schenectady," she called out to a theater filled with a diverse audience.
While speeches touching on togetherness from speakers of various faiths and races were the capstones of Sunday's event, songs and other performances flowed throughout the celebration, from renditions of the "Star Spangled Banner" and "Lift Every Voice And Sing," to "We Shall Overcome" by local choirs.
After an invocation led by Rabbi Rafi Spitzer of Congregation Agudat Achim in Schenectady, who noted that he was himself a recent transplant to Schenectady, Steady Moono, president of SCCC took over the podium to thank the commission for deciding to site the event at the college, noting that, among the myriad of issues involved in achieving equality, accessible education for all is a large one.
Moono lauded those who came before him who spearheaded the fight for equality, and said that now is the time that others must step forward to keep moving forward in that same struggle.
"It is now reliant on us to continue fighting the good fight," he said during his address. "I think we can make a difference."
During her address, Morris used the presence of the audience, who included residents of Schenectady County and the greater Capital Region, as proof that people are prepared to work together to continue King's fight against inequality, racism and hatred. There is not, she added, any time to waste.
"It's time to act, more than ever," Morris said. "The urgency is now."
Morris added that the current political and social climate, which she said lends itself to minorities living in fear of being attack for their skin color, for practicing their faith or even sexuality, stands directly against what King advocated for and results in a climate of fear, poverty and injustice.
"The time for division and debate has passed and now is a time to march forward in the spirit of love, unity and peace," Morris said.
Sunday's keynote speaker was Rep. Antonio Delgado, who expressed gratitude at the chance to come back to his hometown of Schenectady and talk about King. The representative of the New York's 19th Congressional District said King has been his "North star" and largest source of inspiration since he was a child.
"It's good to be home," Delgado said.
Delgado's family was in attendance on Sunday, and he talked about the deep roots his family has in the area, from his mother graduating from SCCC to all of the weekends, nights and summers spent at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Albany, all of which ultimately contributed to his path to not only his current career, but to his reverence for King.
He told a story about one specific moment that he credits as life-changing for him, during which he marched with his parents as a child in an observance for King in Albany.
During that march and immediately after, Delgado said he felt a love and warmth inside of him that stemmed from the coming together of the community, and encouraged him, as a young black child.
"The kind of love that makes you feel like you have a place in the world, and the power to change it," Delgado said. "It's hard to articulate what kind of impact that has on a little boy trying to find his way in the world."
That memory and the realization that in America, a black person could not only find success, but also become an elected official in a mostly white, mostly rural area, continues to bolster him, even though the current political landscape lends itself to "fear mongering and racism," Delgado said. The haste with which people see those unlike them as enemies, Delgado said, will only makes things worse.
"And the result is a more hostile environment. As far as I can tell, this is where we find ourselves today. This, my friends, is the urgency of now," Delgado said to the crowd.
Opting to end his address on a more hopeful and uplifting note, Delgado pointed out that the same love and unity he felt while marching in Albany for King is something that can once again be taken advantage of, and is the key to fostering a more accepting and just society, closer to the ideals King had.
"The power of love. That's the answer," he said. "It is my firm belief that only through love can we stay true to who we are."