Sunday morning may still be the most segregated hour in American life, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in a fictional letter to Americans from the Apostle Paul in 1956, but the Sunday evening before the holiday commemorating Dr. King’s birthday is likely the least segregated hour in Southold Town.
Southold’s Anti-Bias Task Force’s annual celebration of Dr. King’s life, held this year at the North Fork United Methodist Church’s new sanctuary on the corner of Horton Lane and Route 48, proved once again to be a diverse outpouring of love for righteousness, for an embrace of a beloved community, and a an encouragement to speak up for the oppressed.
This year, that message came straight from the top, when Task Force co-chair Valerie Shelby called “our beloved town supervisor,” Scott Russell, up to speak.
“Right now we find ourselves in one of this country’s biggest challenges. The rhetoric we’re hearing and the message of hate and bigotry are everywhere and unfortunately it’s become part of the national dialogue,” said Mr. Russell, a long-popular pragmatic Republican town supervisor who won last November by the narrowest margin in his 14 years in office.
“Recently a friend suggested bigotry and hatred was always there and he posited that it was latent and they just feel emboldened to speak up. Maybe so,” he said. “The problem with that is the message that they spread, of hatred and bigotry, when it becomes the norm, and it’s not challenged, they develop the influence. They become the sphere of influence of our culture.”
Mr. Russell said he was born in 1964 — too late to remember the Civil Rights movement, but he learned about the struggles from teachers with firsthand knowledge of the struggles.
“Those teachers, those mentors, they were my sphere of influence,” he said. “The only way to overcome and to make sure that that message does not spread is to seize that sphere of influence, to be louder, to be stronger, to teach the lessons of the work of Dr. King, to stand up for the message,” he said. “One of my biggest concerns right now is young people are very influenced by social media, and they hear that message of hatred and bigotry over and over. We must seize that. They must hear the lessons of Dr. King. We must become their sphere of influence. Right now we need to be loud, to be strong, to be resolute, for the sake of the dignity of everybody, and to make sure everybody gets the respect that each deserves.”
“I just want to say one last thing, and it’s a call to arms,” he added. “A lot of people out there hear the rhetoric. They know its wrong. They hear the hatred, they hear the bigotry and they know it’s wrong but they don’t do anything about it. It’s time for those cowards to come out of the shadows and join the struggle.”
Young people were very much a focus of the evening’s festivities.
Mattituck High School saxophone students Brodie Morris and Ben Voegel took the stage to play their rendition of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” before which Mr. Morris said that Dr. King “was a huge fan of jazz and had an influence on the music that was created at the time.”
Students from Southold and Mattituck High Schools also shared some of the community projects their schools are engaging in, including beach cleanups, gleaning of local farms for vegetables for the food pantry at Community Action Southold Town, and helping to move the food pantry from the Methodist Church’s old building in Cutchogue to a new food pantry at Feather Hill in Southold.
Reverend Donald Butler, the pastor of Southampton’s Community Baptist Church, brought his choir with him for the keynote address, a reading of Dr. King’s “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in November of 1956.
“I believe that if we take to heart what is said in this letter, America will be a better place,” said Rev. Butler. “It still amazes me this letter was written 63 years ago and still speaks to America today.”
In the fictional letter, Dr. King imagines what the Apostle Paul would have thought of American engineering and the technological advances of the modern world, but then asks Americans to look at the moral underpinnings of their values.
“Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true,” he read. “You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live…. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.”
“I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs,” he added. “They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. They live by some such principle as this: “everybody is doing it, so it must be alright.” For so many of you Morality is merely group consensus. In your modern sociological lingo, the mores are accepted as the right ways. You have unconsciously come to believe that right is discovered by taking a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. How many are giving their ultimate allegiance to this way?”
In the letter, Dr. King also pointedly criticizes American churches, particularly the division between Catholic and Protestant churches, and between churches with predominantly black or white congregations.
“The underlying philosophy of Christianity is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of segregation, and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them lie down together,” he wrote.
As always, Dr. King pressed the importance of non-violence in carrying out his revolutionary message.
“As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love,” he wrote. “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”
“We have a lot to think about in this nation,” said Rev. Butler. “We have prospered in areas that don’t mean anything. We need to prosper in the area of love. There is no white church. There is no black church. There’s only one church, and Jesus Christ is the head of the church.”
Southold Anti-Bias Task Force Co-Chair Sonia Spar urged attendees to give to the Frank LePre Memorial Diversity Materials Fund, which purchase educational materials on diversity for schools in Southold Town. She added that the Task Force is launching a $500 scholarship to one student from Southold Town who displays an understanding of bias issues and social justice.
Southold’s Anti-Bias Task Force encourages residents to get involved in helping the community throughout the year, not just on the Martin Luther King Day of Service, getting involved in soup kitchens, food pantries and homeless shelters here.
“Contribute every day, throughout the year, because our community needs the support,” said Ms. Spar.
Sister Margaret Smyth of St. Agnes Church urged attendees in her invocation to be change agents in the world.
“Today as we pray, Dr. King also prayed that the clouds of wretchedness will pass away, that misunderstandings will be lifted and that love and brotherhood will shine over all of us for ever and ever amen.”
“Over the years, we have made progress but we are still living in a time where hate is dominant,” said Rabbi Barbara Sheryl, who delivered the benediction, closing the service with many of Dr. King’s words. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
“Help us to be the change we want to see, and be all which we were meant to be,” she added. “May we be a friend to those in need, inspire the spirits and souls of those who need a lift, while we appreciate and embrace the gift. May we live our lives with beauty, joy and grace and emanate true love that others can embrace. Imagine a world without hate.”
“I’m dreaming of a day when we will no longer need an Anti-Bias Task Force,” said Ms. Shelby, as the crowd joined hands to sing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”