MANCHESTER, NH – For two hours Monday afternoon the focus was on the content of Manchester’s character. And while there’s always room for improvement, the vibe inside Temple Adath Yeshurun yesterday was bold, resilient, forthright, fearless and unified.
Hundreds gathered for the 37th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, led by Rev. Eric Jackson of Brookside Church and the Greater Manchester NAACP. The Greater Manchester Community Choir sang of freedom, love and unity. Students were honored for their willingness to stand and be counted in a school environment where they say they too often feel invisible and alone.
There were awards and speeches from educators and politicians and, in the end, a human circle, hand in hand, singing “We Shall Overcome.”
We shall overcome.
We shall walk hand in hand.
We shall all be free.
We are not afraid.
We are not alone.
We shall overcome.
Joining the celebration were dignitaries including Mayor Joyce Craig, U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan and U.S. Congressman Chris Pappas, who noted that this would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 90th birthday.
“This day should spur us to look across our community and to look within ourselves to assess whether we’re doing enough to advance the cause of social and economic justice across our nation,” Pappas said.
Pappas spoke of growing evidence that as a country we’re “backsliding, toward racial animus and intolerance,” noting a rise in hate crimes against communities of color, religious minorities and the LGBTQ community.
“Dr. King taught us that we rise and fall as one, and we must be active participants, not bystanders, in the fight for social justice,” Pappas said.
Maxine Mosley, representing the Manchester Education Association, was on hand to present the Vanessa Johnson Award to Youth Organizers United (Y.O.U) a group of students from Manchester recognized as emerging leaders.
She said that she became an educator to make sure young people find their voices, and got involved with the students from Y.O.U. several years ago, during a civil rights inquiry into barriers within the school district preventing students of color to be seated in advanced placement and college prep courses.
“These young people impressed me with their willingness to talk about how students of color are treated in our district,” Mosley said.
Y.O.U. students most recently appealed to the Board of School Committee to include student voices, and after much push back, finally succeeded.
Charity Kabari, one of the three Y.O.U. members who accepted the award Monday, was named one of two Central High School student representatives by her peers.
Kabari spoke about the loneliness she feels at times without having people of color to look up as role models, and and was grateful for “modern-day heroes” like King, who fought for equality.
“This award makes me feel there’s a little bit of Martin Luther King inside all of us,” Kabari said.
Dr. Dottie Morris, Associate Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity at Keene State College, was honored with the Martin Luther King Jr. Award. She said it was a strange feeling to get an award “for doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“It would be impossible for me not to pay my rent on this earth by not doing the things I do,” Morris said, who thanked her parents and family, with special gratitude to her ancestors “for their survival and their capacity to see beyond their conditions so those of us who followed” could find success in a better world.
“We must not build walls around ourselves because when we keep walls around ourselves it closes us off from so many great blessings,” Morris said.
She also offered words of encouragement to Charity Kabari.
“I have to say, with all of my heart, when you said you were all alone — you are not alone. Many people went before you. You stand on their shoulders, and if you ever need back up, you know where I am,” Morris said. “You’re never alone.”
Keynote speaker Ron Walker is a founding member of the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color. He spoke about Dr. King’s commitment to civil rights — particularly the right to equal education.
He also spoke about the power of education to set us free.
“Schooling is for compliance. Education is for liberation,” Walker said, pointing toward the group of Manchester students from Y.O.U. seated in the front. “These students are young liberators.”