Great Barrington — The annual interfaith celebration of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday is in its nineteenth year, but in the 12 months that have passed since the 2017 event at the First Congregational Church, a renewed sense of urgency for the values Dr. King represented has taken hold.
An overflow crowd assembled in the First Congregational Church to celebrate the birthday of the iconic civil rights leader, do some singing, engage in some prayer, listen to a distinguished speaker and watch some artists perform for the occasion.
One of them was musician Pete Wilson, a member of the Clinton Church and a supporter of the restoration of the Clinton AME Zion Church, where civil rights pioneer, W.E.B. Du Bois, attended services as a child.
“It’s always great to be at events like this and see so much faith and caring,” Wilson told the 200 or so people who packed the sanctuary on Main Street. “I wish I could convey that message down to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Hearty applause issued from a crowd that was obviously sympathetic to that point of view, voiced only four days after President Donald Trump reportedly called certain nations in Central America and Africa “shithole countries.” As reported earlier in the weekend in The Edge, the president’s comments received widespread condemnation, both nationally and in Berkshire County.
Wilson then launched into a song that emphasized the qualities many think Trump lacks. Entitled “Humble and Kind,” the song was written by Lori McKenna and popularized by country singer Tim McGraw.
The crowd ate it up. Wilson’s calming baritone echoed through the room without sounding preachy as the audience began a rhythmic clapping and, at the end, thunderous applause.
“Wow, wasn’t that great?” Wray Gunn, a member of the Interfaith Committee of South Berkshire, asked the audience. “What a nice relaxing song in the midst of what’s going on in the world today. It’s amazing that you can find those types of things happening.”
The keynote speaker was Wesley Brown, a visiting faculty member at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and a professor emeritus of English at Rutgers University. Brown is the author of three novels, edited a book on Frederick Douglas and is one of four narrators of a film on Du Bois, “A Biography in Four Voices.” Brown also worked in the 1960s on voter registration in Mississippi.
Brown gave a scholarly lecture on the history of the civil rights movement and, for obvious reasons, there was an emphasis on King.
“James Baldwin once remarked that someone who has entered the public imagination such as Martin Luther King is never more misunderstood once they are dead,” Brown said, referring to the late African American novelist and social critic. “In Baldwin’s view, those who championed King, as well as his servest critics laid claim to him after his assassination with comparable fervor, especially those who saw him as a symbolic figure.”
See video below of Part 1 of Brown’s keynote address:
There were also hymns such as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the NAACP anthem written by Great Barrington resident James Weldon Johnson, and “We Shall Overcome,” a prayer led by Rev. Dr. Janet Zimmerman of Grace Church, introductory remarks by Rabbi Neil Hirsch of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire and a benediction by Dr. Fred Conforti of the Secular Franciscan Order.
Gunn gave an update on the restoration of the Clinton AME Zion Church and spoke the plans of Clinton Church Restoration, the nonprofit group that bought the dilapidated but historic church on Elm Court and plans to turn it into a community gathering place that would preserve its history, honor Du Bois and retain enough space for performances and other events that might produce the revenue necessary to make the new center self-sustaining.
After Gunn’s speech, there was a performance by the Olga Dunn Dance Company, which performed three numbers: “Say Can You See” (a riff on the Star Spangled Banner); “River II”; and “Lify Ev’ry Voice.”
See video below of the Olga Dunn Dance Company performing “River II”:
The event, which was coordinated by Vivian Orlowski, was also the kick-off for a series of townwide events celebrating the 150th birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois. And the celebration was dedicated to the memory of the late Rev. Esther Dozier, the former pastor of the Clinton Church, and the late Rev. John Wightman, pastor who has served throughout the country, most recently in Sheffield. The event also honored Pastor Charles Van Ausdall, who was known as “Pastor Van” and retired last year after 30 years as pastor of the the First Congregational Church.
Afterwards, attendees adjourned for refreshments provided by The Berkshire Co-op Market, Fairview Hospital, Guido’s, Platform To Recovery and Price Chopper.
Below, to remind us of the eloquence and moral persuasiveness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and why we celebrate his birthday as we do that of President Lincoln, is his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.: