This Monday is Martin Luther King Day, and in the swirl of public reaction to recent police brutality against unarmed young black men in Staten Island and Ferguson, Missouri, this year the annual observation seems likely to amount to more than the usual three-day weekend. What can you do in these parts to make the holiday meaningful, besides take in the terrific new movie Selma? Here are a couple of ideas:
The Town of Woodstock, in collaboration with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Planning Committee and the Haitian People’s Support Project, has been celebrating the great Civil Rights leader’s legacy and message for a quarter-century already. On Sunday afternoon, January 18, inspirational speakers, activists and performers will convene at the Woodstock Justice Court to present a program organized under the theme of “What Would King Say?”
One powerful way to remember Dr. King is to keep alive the tradition that he exemplifies of stirring oratory, its message of progressive social change propelled by the hypnotic cadences of Southern gospel preachers. Filling that role this weekend in Woodstock will be the Reverend G. Modele Clarke of Kingston’s New Progressive Baptist Church. Also speaking will be Pam Africa of the International Friends of Mumia Abu Jamal and Kingston-based youth activist Kortnee Simmons.
Music was an essential bonding and motivating force in the American Civil Rights movement, so it should come as no surprise that Sunday’s program will also include some. Debra Burger will perform a selection of Freedom Songs – in which the audience will undoubtedly be encouraged to sing along – and the tradition will be brought right up to the present by a cadre of socially conscious hip hop performers and poets.
The featured artist will be Josh Otero, a recent SUNY-New Paltz graduate who was active during his college years in the spoken-word cooperative Urban Lyrics and is today a member of the group ENJAN Kingston. “I have also been working with many minds, musicians, comrades in the Hudson Valley with the hopes of bringing change to our world…a change in consciousness rather than simply a change in law,” writes Otero in his personal mission statement. You can get a glimpse of his work at https://www.youtube.com/user/urbanlyricsnewpaltz.
The event organizers have described their intent as to proliferate Dr. King’s message “to include all who can be included in the struggle to transform America.” That invitation would seem to embrace pretty much everybody who isn’t living under a rock. Admission is free, and the afternoon’s program begins at 2 p.m. The Justice Court is located at 76 Tinker Street in Woodstock. You can find out more by calling (845) 679-7320.
If you live in the Hudson Valley, it’s hard to think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without thinking soon after of Pete Seeger, who died one year ago this month. Though the two only actually met a handful of times, those meetings were historic and fateful, their life missions inextricably intertwined.
Pete was deeply inspired by Dr. King’s work; he and his wife Toshi were in the line of march at the game-changing 50-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama reenacted in the current movie. And it was from Seeger, at their first meeting at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in 1957, that Dr. King first heard a rendition of an old gospel song that had been adapted into a union organizing anthem. It soon went on to become a rallying call sung at pretty much every march and sit-in of the Civil Rights movement: “We Shall Overcome.”
One of Seeger’s final undertakings was to ensure that his adopted home of Beacon would commemorate Dr. King’s legacy annually in a meaningful and participatory way, with a “singing parade” on the holiday itself. “The idea of the parade was Pete Seeger’s. He felt that MLK Day had become a day off from school, a day off from work, without people recognizing Dr. King, a man who truly changed the world in such a positive way,” writes Dr. King Parade organizer Bonnie Champion.
“Last year was the first parade, and it was very successful with over 1,200 marching,” Champion continues. “Pete Seeger tried so hard to make it to the parade, but he was too ill. It meant so much to him that he actually stayed alive for the parade, and died the next Monday – exactly one week later.”
Lineup for the parade begins at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, January 19 at 8 Matty Cooper Square (a/k/a Church Street) in Beacon, and the march steps off at 10 a.m. The Beacon Sloop Club and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the Southern Dutchess Coalition, Better Together, the NAACP, the Salvation Army and many local churches plan to participate. “We are encouraging people to carry banners for their organizations. We are also encouraging people to carry American flags and posters about Dr. King, peace, Civil Rights, workers’ rights and the environment. Bring your guitars, banjos and folk music instruments, and sing along with us,” writes Champion.
Find out more about the Dr. King Parade by calling (845) 255-6436.
25th annual Birthday Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday, January 18, 2 p.m., free, Woodstock Justice Court, 76 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-7320.
Second annual Dr. King Parade, Monday, January 19, 10 a.m., free, 8 Matty Cooper Square, Beacon; (845) 255-6436.