Unity Prevailed at King Tribute in East Hampton

"Let's put a smile on our faces because this is a day of celebration!" Doris Hanna told the crowd at Calvary Baptist Church in East Hampton on Monday. Durell Godfrey

“This is a day of celebration,” said Doris Hanna, a church member and speaker at Calvary Baptist Church’s ceremony on Monday marking the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin King Jr. The civil rights icon would have been 89 this year, and April will be the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis. “But I see so many sad faces here,” Ms. Hanna said.

There was an air of sadness reverberating through the church, but Ms. Hanna urged the congregation, which included town, school, and community leaders, to focus on the joyful legacy of Dr. King, who fought to make America a more inclusive society. “Let’s put a smile on our faces because this is a day of celebration!” she exclaimed.

Indeed, an uproarious tribute followed. Sandra Vorpahl, a church member, served as the event’s M.C. In place of a keynote speaker this year, young community members read poems, spoke, and even danced, while the choir sang with its trademark exuberance.

Naomi Blowe, an East Hampton High School junior, reminded the crowd that “Today is not a black holiday, it’s a people’s holiday.”

Aniyah Mabry-Brewton, a freshman at the school, read the poem “Standing Tall” by Jamie McKenzie, which includes the verse “But this King / even in death / even today / stands strong / stands proud / stands tall / and we remember.”

Jacarra Stephens, a senior at the high school who will head to Franklin Pierce University in the fall to study business, performed a praise dance in honor of the civil rights leader.

And yet, at every pause and during every speech, references to the fractured state of the nation brought the attendees back to an undeniable reality that today’s racial discourse is closer to one in 1968 than where Dr. King had dreamed it would be 50 years later.

“I’ve been around for a very long time,” Lucius Ware, the president of the Eastern Long Island Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., said. “Never in all of my life could I have anticipated we’d be where are today.”

When Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, a Democrat, took to the podium, she said, “At the top of our government, there is a poison that has extended to our discourse. . . . We must refuse to be poisoned. May [Dr. King’s] legacy never be forgotten. We will always walk in his footsteps.”

Richard Burns, the superintendent of the East Hampton School District, spoke of his district’s commitment to “all lives matter,” a mission he said he would ensure is accomplished.

Referring to President Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech, Alexandria Hanna, a graduate of East Hampton High School and the State University at Oneonta who now works for J.P. Morgan Chase, said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

In a televised address on Monday, President Trump said: “Dr. King's dream is our dream. It is the American Dream. It's the promise stitched into the fabric of our nation, etched into the hearts of our people, and written into the soul of humankind."

Not so, said Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the activist, who retorted during a speech in Washington, D.C., “When a president insists that our nation needs more citizens from white states like Norway, I don't even think we need to spend any time talking about what it says and what it is. We got to find a way to work on this man's heart.”

Ultimately, unity and hope prevailed at Calvary Baptist Church as Monday’s tribute concluded with the congregation standing hand in hand in a circle in the sanctuary to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
 

The church choir helped to lift the spirits of those gathered to remember Dr. King's legacy.Durell Godfrey
The pews were filled for the annual celebration.Durell Godfrey
Young community members read poems, spoke, and even danced during the service, which helps raise money for the church's Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarships.Durell Godfrey
Naomi Blowe, an East Hampton High School junior, reminded the crowd that “Today is not a black holiday, it’s a people’s holiday.”Durell Godfrey
Jacarra Stephens performed a praise dance.Durell Godfrey
Among the speakers on Monday were, clockwise from top left, the church's pastor, the Rev. Walter Silva Thompson; Lucius Ware, president of the Eastern Long Island Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.; Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, and Richard Burns, superintendent of the East Hampton School District.Durell Godfrey
Singers from the church's combined choirDurell Godfrey