Farmington Valley Times January 6, 2014 Jacqueline Bennett
Simsbury committees working to keep Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, legacy alive
SIMSBURY >> Two entities in Simsbury are striving to keep alive the hope of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech – that someday all Americans will be judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin. The MLK in Simsbury Celebration Committee will host a 2 p.m. ceremony at First Church on January 20, which is Martin Luther King Day, to honor the slain civil rights leader.
The work of Simsbury’s MLKinCT Memorial Project will be highlighted at the ceremony. The public is invited.
“We must stand vigilant,” state Rep. John Hampton, a founding member of the MLK in Simsbury Celebration Committee, said during an interview with members of the committee and the memorial project Dec. 27 at Peaberry’s Café.
Rev. Edwin Ayala of the Hartford-based Christian Activities Counsel will serve as keynote speaker. Remarks are planned by other speakers such as Simsbury Superintendent of Schools Matt Curtis, clergy, young people including students from the Capital Preparatory Magnet School and Simsbury High School junior Shannon Cirrili, readings with one likely linked to the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, and music. Last year’s ceremony at First Church drew a full house and the two groups are eager to have the same response this year.
Despite strides against racism in the United States and the election of the first black president, committee members agreed the country still has a long way to go to realize King’s dream. Their goal they said is to be part of continuing to raise awareness about racial issues in America and to proudly proclaim the connection between Simsbury and King who spent two summers working on tobacco farms here while a student at Morehouse College – providing him with experiences of racial desegregation said to have greatly influenced his life.
Hampton and fellow committee member Rick Wagner describe themselves as “townies” who both grown up in Simsbury but not knowing then about King’s time here.
“He’s one of our own,” said Hampton.
“Whether Simsbury had a direct or indirect effect on Martin Luther King, it had an effect that we need to honor,” Wagner said.
Wagner noted it wasn’t until he returned to town about seven years ago as an adult after having lived in Houston for some 15 years that due to media reports he learned of King’s presence in Simsbury.
“When I came back to Simsbury I found myself totally unaware that Martin Luther King had spent time here – that is a remarkable thing - and still lots of people don’t know about it,” Wagner added.
For Pam McDonald, librarian at Westminster School and a celebration committee member, her interest in racial inequity began as a young woman growing up during the era of the Civil Rights Movement.
“I believe in Sunday school and the Golden Rule, it’s really important to me – the notion of ‘turn the other cheek’,” said McDonald.
She recalled during those years hearing skeptics of the concept of turning the other cheek, yet seeing on television the effectiveness of the non-violent movement led by MLK. She said she tried to reach out to black students at her high school and recalled accounts of blacks living under Jim Crow conditions in parts of the U.S. but doing so with dignity.
“They were treated badly but were still able to carry on,” she said, “Turning the other cheek was effective.”
It was in the 1990s while attending library school at Syracuse University that McDonald researched the history of race in America through an independent study. Carrying her passion for social justice and what she learned in that study with her when she moved with her husband to Simsbury, along with Hampton she was instrumental in forming the MLK in Simsbury Celebration Committee. Originally their goal was to build a statue in town of MLK as a boy. They ran into financial obstacles so decided to hold annual observances in King’s memory.
However, it was a documentary produced by a group of Simsbury High School students a few years ago that catapulted King’s connection to Simsbury into the public consciousness – it was even aired on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” The MLKinCT Memorial Project is a continuation of the work of those first SHS students and has enlisted new students such as Cirilli to carry the torch. It was committee advisor Joan Rogers who asked Cirilli to participate. In addition to having taken part in discussions on their mission with various civic groups and at SeptemberFest, Cirrilli is looking forward to speaking at the MLK Day ceremony.
“We are close to our goal, two thirds of the way towards raising $110,000 for the memorial,” she explained.
Eventually the memorial will be erected at the Simsbury Historical Society. A mock-up of it will be on display at the ceremony.
From the perspective of a member of the younger generation, Cirilli said she thinks racism in America is less blatant but has perhaps moved to being expressed on the Internet. Occasionally, she said she overhears comments about athletes attributing their success to being black that she does not feel have malicious intent but make her uncomfortable.
“Maybe he’s talented. Maybe he works really hard,” she said.
Visit MLKinCT.com to learn more about the MLKinCT Memorial Project, and to make a donation or purchase a personalized tax deductible engraved brick.