Newport This Week

Reflecting on King’s Life and Legacy

Runners and spectators are welcome to participate in the MLK Torch Run on Monday, Jan. 16 which begins at 9 a.m. at the 1st Rhode Island Regiment Monument, Portsmouth and continues to Newport City Hall.

Runners and spectators are welcome to participate in the MLK Torch Run on Monday, Jan. 16 which begins at 9 a.m. at the 1st Rhode Island Regiment Monument, Portsmouth and continues to Newport City Hall.

The Newport County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will hold its annual observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Jan. 16 with speaking programs, a commemorative “torch run,” a luncheon and an evening worship service.

The celebration of the national holiday begins on Sunday, Jan. 15, at 3 p.m., with a concert by the combined choirs of the Community Baptist Church and the Mount Zion AME Church. The two groups will perform gospel and religious music as The Voices of Unity Choir at the Redwood Library.

The fact that the local NAACP has observed the national holiday marking King’s birthday for 38 years highlights what it has come to mean to the African American community and others who follow the example set by the assassinated leader. Yet it also reminds the larger community that it took nearly 20 years to see the holiday established.

Shortly after King was assassinated in April 1968, Congress had before it a resolution to create a national holiday to honor his work and his memory. Numerous attempts at adoption failed, despite years of rallies, protests and lobbying from an array of organizations and individuals, and it was not until 1983 that the resolution was approved. Two years later, the first official observances of the holiday took place.

When asked if she thinks the holiday is observed properly across the country, Victoria Johnson, a long-time local activist and a member of the committee that planned the holiday events, said that for many people it has become “just like all our other holidays.”

“Unless it is about your heritage, people just consider it another day off work,” she said.

Johnson, who is on the Rhode Island Commission for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, said the activities are meant to commemorate King’s life and reflect on the important work he did to end segregation and to secure civil rights for those denied.

“Simply put, this man helped make a difference in this world,” she said. “He helped make us who and what we are, but he also showed us what we can be.”

Dr. Letizia Gambrell-Boone, vice president of student affairs at Salve Regina University, notes that the holiday is the only federal holiday designated as a National Day of Service.

“This holiday gives each of us an opportunity to reflect upon how we can be intentional in meeting the needs of others,” she said. “It allows each of us to operate in the spirit of Dr. King’s definition of greatness in service to others.”

In that regard, the holiday has caused some people to measure the success of the foundation laid down by King and other civil rights leaders. On this holiday, we might ask: How much progress has been made in terms of equity and social justice? How much different are things now in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement? And in Newport’s case, how much different are things in the city?

Gambrell-Boone, who will give the keynote speech on Jan. 16, said she will use King’s message about service “as a lens through which everyone can consider ways to serve humanity’s ideals.”

“I encourage each of us to become curious about how we interact with difference,” she said. “I invite each of us to consider how we present ourselves when we interact with those who are similar to us versus those who are different. If we don’t like how we handle difference, I challenge each of us to be committed to serving the ideals of our humanity by asking ourselves why and acting differently.”

Johnson considers these ideas in the context of community building. “I remember segregation growing up,” she said. “I knew where I could go and what I could do. Things are different in that respect today, but in Newport I think our kids have changed. They aren’t able to stay in their community because they can’t afford it or they can’t find opportunities here. They are leaving for places where they have opportunities.

“It is unfortunate because we are losing our community in different ways. I lived in the West Broadway area, but it has become gentrified in recent years. Black families that once had that area as their community now move to Portsmouth and Middletown, and people should know that that can be difficult for the children.”

Another of the guest speakers, City Councilor Angela McCalla, said she hopes people will use the holiday events, including her morning address at Thompson Middle School, to reflect on the principles of racial equality and non-violent change that King fought and died for. While she shared a similar perspective to Johnson’s, she noted that young people around the country have been voting for change.

“Our council is becoming more diverse in relation to socioeconomic status, age, race and ethnicity,” she said. “We are looking at planning and zoning access issues in a way that has never been thought about before. We still have more work to do to ensure all residents are reflected in our city government, job access, education and housing. We need to ensure everyone an equal opportunity to thrive. We are not there yet.”

Gambrell-Boone suggests that the United States has many opportunities as a country to do better for mankind and honor King’s fight for racial equality. “I believe that this holiday gives us an opportunity each year to reflect on our commitment to redressing racial injustices in our communities,” she said.

Johnson, who left Newport in the 1970s to take a teaching job but returned 25 years later to become principal at Rogers High School, sees McCalla, a mixedrace woman, working on the City Council as a sign of progress. “She brings things up that others do not,” Johnson said. “That is what African Americans have done historically. I love Newport and always have. We need to make it everyone’s community.”

She points out that there was a time in Newport when Black businesses thrived, but there is very little Black business ownership here now.

“I have a long list of all kinds of different businesses that existed here,” she said. “But the community has changed in that respect. Having your own community, your own churches and businesses, is a matter of pride and honor. We have lost some of that.”

The holiday celebration includes the torch run at 9 a.m. from the First Rhode Island Regiment Monument in Portsmouth, also known as the Black Regiment monument. The morning program at Thompson Middle School observing King’s birthday begins at 9:30 a.m. The noon luncheon takes place at the Green Valley Country Club in Portsmouth. The evening worship service takes place at the Community Baptist Church, on Marcus Wheatland Blvd., at 5 p.m.

In her address, Gambrell-Boone says her message will stress service and consideration of others.

“At the very least, I challenge us to become curious about what frames our perceptions of difference,” she said. “Are these thoughts true? We must use this holiday as an opportunity to ask ourselves: ‘Do I like the way I show up when I am around humans different from me?’ We can all do better. We can read more, reflect more, listen more, and act in a way that exemplifies Dr. King’s expressed Christian ideals, or, more broadly, human ideals, which propagate and eventually embody Dr. King’s dream.”

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