One year into a national administration that’s put our civil rights into question from the start, the mood at the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration Sunday afternoon was one of solidarity and hope.
It had just been a couple days since reports emerged that President Donald Trump’s language had taken its most definitively racist turn yet, but, while speakers at last year’s ceremony had expressed outrage and a demand for action, this year’s focus was on the simple act of standing strong in the face of bullies, and of hope for future generations.
“Love is not a gray area in the scriptures,” said Sabrina Dobbs, a parishioner at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Greenport, where the cremony was held. “Jesus made love a priority in all the scriptures. We are called to love a person simply because they are a person.”
Jacob Sparr, son of ABTF co-chair Sonia Spar, boisterously led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, while the WAR (Willing, Able and Ready) choir of St. Johns Baptist Church in Hempstead led the crowd through two verses of the melodically challenging “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Negro National Anthem. The crowd put their best effort forward.
Ayania Smith, a member of Greenport’s Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church and a student at Greenport High School, read an excerpt from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
Go back to Mississippi. Go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
Fresh with the week’s news on his mind, Rev. Roger Joslin of Greenport’s Holy Trinity Church reminded the audience that Nathaniel, who became a follower of Jesus, had asked “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” before he agreed to go with friends to learn from Christ.
Immigrants, said Pastor Joslin in his invocation, “are the vital core on which our nation stands,” adding that Dr. King reminded his followers that “non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good.”
Each attendee at the service was given a blue ribbon, a symbol introduced by the ABTF at a “Respect & Civility” vigil held just before the 2016 presidential election.
“Since then our world has grown colder,” said Susan Dingle of the ABTF. “We know what Dr. King said about silence: ‘History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
She urged attendees to have the courage to stand up for their values.
Retired Reverend Ben Burns, a former Greenport Village Trustee, said he believes people are afraid today to speak up for their beliefs.
“I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to do the right thing,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. Let’s move ahead.”
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said that, when he was a young boy in the late 1960s, he clearly remembers having rooted for the “Miracle Mets,” who took the world by surprise when the won the 1969 World Series, but he doesn’t remember having thought about Dr. King at that time. Now, he said, he doesn’t remember any of those ball players, but Dr. King’s legacy still sticks with him.
“The one thing I learned studying history is that time breeds obscurity,” he said. “We need to be sure the man is remembered.”
Keynote speaker Rev. Enoch Thomas of St. Johns Baptist Church in Hempstead was thinking about the future when he drafted his speech. He shared a story of how, when he was a boy, one afternoon he got into his parent’s closet and began trying on his father’s clothes. When his parents found him, he told them that he couldn’t wait until he was old enough to wear his father’s shoes.
His father told him that he couldn’t wear them, because they were his own shoes. His mother told him that he shouldn’t be so quick to walk in someone else’s shoes. After all, he wouldn’t know where those shoes had been, and he might not even fit into them.
He reflected a lot on that as he grew older, and learned more about Dr. King.
“At first people thought he was crazy, but I’m so grateful this young man didn’t stop because of what people thought,” he said. “There would be a many obstacles… but he understood he wasn’t being driven by man, but by the power of god.”
“He would say ‘hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. He knew that every day wasn’t going to be a great day. There would be some hardships and some disappointment. We must accept disappointment but never lose infinite hope. He wasn’t concerned about the violence of the world, because he took a non-violence approach.”
“I have decided to stick to love,” Dr. King had said, “because hate is too great of a burden to bear.”
Today, said Rev. Thomas, much of Dr. King’s dream has come true. Schools and corporations, he said, are filled with people of every race, religion and ethnicity, and technology has made it easier than ever to communicate with friends and family all over the world.
“Our options are limitless. Opportunities are limitless. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m not saying you might not have some bad days,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, it’s going to be hard sometimes, and you might want to give up sometimes. It might be hard fought, but what I have to tell you is, ‘Yes, you can.'”
“You can be delayed, but you won’t be denied,” he said. “All you gotta do is stand strong.”
Fast-forward to the present day, said Pastor Thomas, he found his own two sons trying on his shoes. Recollecting what his own parents had told him, he realized a different metaphor would apply today. He told his sons his own shoes were too small for them.
“You’re gonna do greater than daddy could ever do,” he told them. “You’re gonna go places that daddy couldn’t go. You’re going to see things that daddy could never see. Because the atmosphere has been set. The road has been paved. We started from humble beginnings…. We started from the bottom. Now we’re here.”
“Eyes have not seen, ears have not heard, and neither has it entered into the heart of man what god has in store for them,” he said.
In closing prayers, other North Fork clergy members weighed in.
Rev. Natalie Wimberly of Greenport’s Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church reminded the clergy of their charge to disturb the status quo when it does not stand on the side of justice.
Rev. Dr. Peter Kelley of the First Presbyterian Church of Southold said he recently took inspiration from a quote from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
“We’re not going to kill what we hate,” he said. “We’re going to save what we love.”
There was no hesitation amongst anyone in the room as they clasped hands with strangers and neighbors and wholeheartedly sang “We Shall Overcome.”