Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2008

I got out of work and jetted home. It occurred to me that I wore this particular flowered hat, and my AmeriCorps hoodie, and my green army jacket when we did the peace march on Martin Luther King Day back when I organized the event with Spectrum. There was a picture in the Rutland Herald of me in this silly outfit, along with Sean, Mimi, Dad, and Erika's giving the camera the eye. I dug through a box and found the article and remembered that I still had the posters I had made for the march. So I hopped in my car and ran to the studio to grab them. Cory had run to pick up the programs for the event and then he picked me up at the studio and we went, folding programs in the car.

We got into the church and set up what food we had, rushing around, and I left to go to City Hall. Betty Little, Teresa Sayward, and Mayor Akins all said a few polite words. There were TV cameras. Then we went outside and I talked to Alyson Martin, who was reporting for The Post Star. And marched with a police escort to the church, holding the signs. We were on the front page of the paper! While we were marching, a murmur started, and then an outright song - "We Shall Overcome". I didn't know the words, but it got me teary. We weren't just walking down Bay Street - this meant a lot to the people who showed up. I felt like an imposter, knowing I'd never come close to what those marching with me had gone through, that I only knew about prejudice and oppression from books and movies, and here were real people who lived through it every day. I fought back more tears than fell.

We got there and put the signs up near the altar. People sat down and listened to the "I have a dream" speech. Looking around me, I was surprised. In Glens Falls, where I've encountered maybe one or two Black people socially, I was sitting in a room that was about 50/50. The importance of the celebration really got me. It was meaningful. It drew these people out of their homes and into a church Glens Falls. Something I helped organize was actually drawing people together, people who wouldn't show up here normally.

Bruce Reese did the opening prayer and then we sang the African American National Anthem. (He slipped up and first called it the Negro National Anthem - which got to me too, because it tied it back to history, made me think about how long people have been singing this, before political correctness, before I ever came along.) I didn't know the words, but was glad to be singing it along with everyone, albeit badly.

Then a choir got up and sang some songs - really really catchy stuff, and the whole church was clapping along. It had so much soul, not like the flat church choirs you usually hear. It was fun, and made me wonder why all church songs aren't like that. Then a preacher, Rev. Leonard Oates, took the stage. He delivered a very powerful message - I was actually a little uncomfortable with the amount of emotion he was showing - it was a lot like the "I have a dream" speech, and people started saying "Amen" and "YES!" and getting riled up, and it was like I was in a Southern Baptist Church or something. I don't know what I was scared of, there was just so much emotion in the room and it made me nervous somehow. Like I shouldn't be there, or something. This had ceased to be something the people I knew had organized, it had taken on its own power. No TV cameras here. One thing I really liked was that he said sure, Martin Luther King was an extremist. He was EXTREMELY for peace, he was EXTREMELY for justice, he was EXTREMELY for freedom, and so on. That label of "extremist" isn't a bad thing. That made me feel a little more reassured about when people call me an extremist.

A woman Cory knew got up and sang a song I knew from Mission Farm Church, "There is a balm in Gilead". Then Neal Herr, who had played at Seven Straight Nights, got up and sang Blackbird, which Lennon had written about Dr. King after his death. It was so gentle and sad after all that fired-up talk. Matt Funiciello got up after that and kind of did a commentary on the whole thing, about the state of our country, about how MLK was a reverend and God spoke through him, and maybe we heard some of that through Reverend Oates. That gave me chills. Then he introduced Dr. Alice Green, a tiny and very very educated Black woman who had been arrested at protests and was an activist in Albany. She spoke so eloquently and engagingly. She covered how far we've come since 1962, but also how far we have to go still. The war in Iraq is something MLK wouldn't stand for. The incarceration rates, the money spend on building prisons and starting wars that could be used for education and fixing the domestic problems we have now, it's all things that need to change. And that things don't just change, you have to MAKE them change.

Cory got up after and played Bob Dylan's song "When the ship comes in" - which Dylan played after the "I have a dream speech" on the steps of Washington. I took lots of pictures. I was so proud of him, proud to be his girlfriend. He did a really good job. Then whomever was invited to get up on stage and sing with the choir. Cory and I got up and sang "Let peace begin with me" and "America the Beautiful" at the top of our lungs. Afterward, the preacher blessed the refreshments and a woman grabbed my hand as I was walking by so we could hold hands and pray. Then the food! It ended up being enough. The people I knew - Mark DeVit, Tanya and her kids, Cory and I, we stayed and cleaned everything up along with a few others I didn't really know. We locked up and drove Mark home and that was that.

Falling asleep that night in Cory's arms, I thought about how proud I was of him, how glad I was to be a part of something, to help my community, to help make this event happen that drew all these people out of their homes to sing America the Beautiful, to get up with Cory and sing on stage about peace. That feeling of pride, of belonging, and to share it with the man I love, that's a wonderful wonderful thing.

Photo credit Erin R. Coker - www.erinreidcoker.com

Photo credit: Erin Reid Coker

Alyson Martin of the Post Star's front-page article on the event.

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