Mark Hayward's City Matters: Manchester celebrates Martin Luther King legacy
How King's dream — to judge us by the content of our character, not the color of our skin — continues to inspire. And how his commemoration gives many of us a day off work — or at least an opportunity to gather with like-minded compatriots to renew our commitment to King's ideals.
In fact, Manchester loves the day so much that it offers two such opportunities this coming Monday.
There is the traditional event — in its 32nd year — that is sponsored by left-leaning groups. It includes a pot-luck supper, a speech by a former death row inmate, essay contest winners, and a high school jazz band. It concludes with hand-holding and everyone singing "We Shall Overcome."
Then there is the newer event — in its 12th year — which offers more of a rightward bent. It boasts corporate sponsorships, dinner at $75 a plate, live chamber music, a military ceremony and a speech by an ABC news correspondent flown up from New York.
Same day. Same guy. Two different ways of looking at him.
"I applaud them for what they're doing. We do things differently; that's all," said Wayne Jennings, a New Boston resident and one-time head of the Manchester NAACP. His "Keeping the Dream Alive" dinner is the more conservative of the two.
For instance, Jennings said he doubts any King celebration in the country has a missing man ceremony, a touching candle-lighting that honors the war dead.
"We promote the fact we live in a great country. People from different ethnic backgrounds make this a great country," Jennings said. Previous dinners raised as much as $35,000, which funded a diversity workshop and day of skiing for middle school students at Waterville Valley. However, Jennings said recent dinners haven't raised anywhere near that amount, thanks to the sour economy.
Meanwhile, at the St. George Greek Orthodox Church, the Martin Luther King Coalition will hold a more traditional King celebration. The coalition comprises public employee and teacher unions, churches, and activists groups such as the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and Granite State Organizing Project.
"Most of these groups are incorporated, so if you wanted to be really technical about it, you could call them corporate sponsors," quipped Arnie Alpert, a spokesman for the coalition.
His Martin Luther King Day Community Celebration holds seniority over Jennings' event. It traces its first celebration back to 1983, when the nation was debating the King holiday. Former guests have included the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund.
In its early years, the coalition event had an edge, as elected New Hampshire officials rejected efforts to establish a state holiday in King's name until 1999. But once New Hampshire created a King holiday, the event petered out somewhat, Alpert said. Still, he expects it will draw between 150 and 300 people (Jennings expects 200, far more than last year's event.)
What does Alpert think of another King event in Manchester, his home turf?
"It's fabulous," Alpert said. He compared the holiday to Christmas; no priest or minister is upset that other churches hold services on Christmas Day.
"From my perspective, the more people who live out the legacy of Martin Luther King, the better it is," Alpert said.
Yet, when King spoke of his dream, he spoke of unity — that "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." Arguably, you could attend either event and say that dream has been reached. Both events will have whites and blacks eating, mingling and enjoying one another's company.
But we remain divided. It's not perfect, but it's progress. Our city — as well as our country — remains segregated, but now along the lines of political ideology and social-economic standing, rather than race. And who knows, if different ideologies can agree to honor King, maybe they can find agreement on education, and poverty, and health care, and entitlements, and ...
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader. com. He can be reached at email@example.com.