MLK Day a time to reflect on how to address systemic racism and poverty

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U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan, Maxine Mosley of National Education Association (NEA)-NH, U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan and U.S. Congressman Chris Pappas prepare for the “Let Freedom Ring” bell ringing, a tradition of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Community Celebration in Manchester. Photo/Pat Grossmith

MANCHESTER, NH — Twenty years ago,  then Gov. Jeanne Shaheen signed legislation adopting the Martin Luther King Jr. Day in New Hampshire, the last state in the country to recognize the holiday.

On Monday, Shaheen — now the state’s senior U.S. Senator —said during an annual MLK Day event in Manchester that it was an honor to sign that legislation.

“I remember vividly that hot June afternoon with Martin Luther King III out on the State House lawn for that signing ceremony and I think everybody in New Hampshire celebrated joining the rest of the nation in celebrating the MLK holiday,” she said.

She said that like many attending Monday’s event, the holiday is personal to her because as a child attending segregated schools in southern Missouri she saw the daily injustices Martin Luther King and so many people in the civil rights movement were working on.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH. Photo/Pat Grossmith

Shaheen said later when she taught at a newly integrated school in Mississippi she saw the opportunities that were becoming available because of the inspirational work of Dr. King.

“We have made great strides in the march toward equality and we’re not there yet as Dr. King would say, but we got to keep moving down that road that makes progress,” she said.

The celebration featured the Manchester West High School Jazz Band, the Greater Manchester Area Choir, and speeches from Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, and U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas.

About 400 people came out to Temple Adath Yeshurun for the celebration of King’s birthday, legacy and life.

The theme of the celebration was “We the People: Renew the Poor People’s Campaign,” presented by the Martin Luther King Jr. coalition.

State Senator Melanie Levesque, D-Nashua, led a panel discussion on the NH Poor People’s Campaign.  Panelists included Dr. Debbie Opramolla, co-chair of the campaign, State Rep. Wendy Thomas of Merrimack and Will Hopkins, director of New Hampshire Peace Action.

Will Hopkins of New Hampshire Peace Action, NH State Rep. Wendy Thomas of Merrimack, NH State Sen. Melanie Levesque and Dr. Debbie Opramollo, co-chair of the New Hampshire Poor People Campaign, took part in a panel discussion about the Poor People’s Campaign, which began 51 years ago under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Photo/Pat Grossmith

“Being a peace activist, you have to be an anti-racism activist, an ecological activist, and an economic justice activist,” said Hopkins.

The Poor People’s Campaign began 51 years ago under the leadership of Dr. King and others. It called for a revolution of values in which people were asked to stand together against militarism, racism and economic injustice.  A revival of that campaign has reemerged in 39 states with the addition of environmental devastation.

The goal is to force a serious national examination of systemic racism, poverty and environmental devastation.

Brenda Bailey Lett, a community and social justice activist, was named this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award winner.

She received the honor Monday at the 38th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Community Celebration.

Lett moved from Chicago to Manchester in 1993.  In Chicago, she worked to elect Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983.

Brenda Lett, 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Award winner.

Lett advocates for human rights for African descendants and others, and the elimination of racism.  She has focused on community building, health, education and criminal justice.

Lett is the co-founder of Manchester’s Ujima Collective, is secretary of the National Coalition for Blacks for Reparations in America and co-author of “Race Between Us:  Racism-A Human Experience.”  She is the founder and chair of the NH Black Woman Health Project, organizer of several “Undoing Racism” workshops in the state and past president of the Manchester NAACP.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Dubuque University and earned two master’s degrees, one in community economic development and the other in community mental health from Southern New Hampshire University.  Her thesis for her second master’s degree was “The Effect of Racism on Mental Health of the African Decent Community.”

Lett works for the Department of Corrections at the new Women’s Prison where she continues her work for mental health and education.

She is married to Woullard Lett, the 2012 MLK Award recipient, who served on the Manchester Police Commission.

Manny Content received the Vanessa Johnson Award that recognizes and encourages emerging leaders in movements for social justice.  At a young age, Content immigrated to Manchester from Haiti. He is a graduate of Manchester Central High School and has worked many years at Coca Cola Northeast, where he started as a driver/deliveryman and worked his way up into management.

He has worked with various groups and initiatives including the Manchester NAACP, Manchester Disproportionate Minority Contact Local Committee, Manchester Community Advisory Board and the Manchester Police Commission.

Samuel Petit, an eighth-grader at the Keene Middle School, took first place in the Lionel Washington-Johnson Youth Awards for his essay on the theme, “We are More Alike than Different.”

The statewide competition for grades 5 through 8 challenged students to respond to:  “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land,”  a quote from King’s speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., one day before his assassination.

Anna Stanton, a fifth-grader at the Auburn Middle School, placed second.  Honorable mentions went to Camryn McNulty, Ryleigh Michaud, Quinn Manning, Gabrielle Bedard, and Audrey Howard, all students at the Auburn Village School.  Their teacher, Christina Ouellette, had encouraged the children to enter the contest.

About this Author

Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.