On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I went to Faneuil Hall in Boston for a “Day of Service,” organized by the City of Boston and the Museum of African American History in honor of Dr. King. I came half an hour early, and found a seat to the left side of the stage, next to rows of chairs that had been set up for the Boston Symphony Youth Orchestra. The seats around me filled, and then the balconies. A girl no older than three sat beside me with her mother, and a group of elderly black women, holding fancy hats on their laps, sat in the row of seats facing the orchestra. At 1pm, Dr. Lee Pelton, the first black president of Emerson College, tall and elegant, took the podium and began the ceremony.
It is hard to celebrate Dr. King’s life without acknowledging the tragedy of his death. Indeed, we celebrate in rebuttal to his death, in determination to extend Dr. King’s fight beyond his 39 years. Today our sense of loss was double. Barack Obama’s absence hung over the room.
Dr. Pelton gave a short speech noting the many similarities between Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr.--their eloquence, their determination, their quests to inspire others to action. Mayor Marty Walsh took the podium next. He pledged to continue Dr. King’s fight, and thanked the many Bostonians who fought alongside Dr. King and have been fighting since (the women with the hats cheered). Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard and the National President of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, delivered the keynote address. She spoke about the persistence of the men and women who fought and continue to fight for civil rights, and about how that fight is done by ordinary people, not just people like Dr. King and President Obama.
These three speeches were punctuated by short performances from the BYSO, and by readings from Dr. King’s writings, performed by Ernesto Arroyo, a local organizer, Dr. Atiya Martin, the Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Boston, and Sebastian Ridore, a BYSO alumnus.
It struck me, listening to Dr. Pelton and Dr. Higginbotham, that their presence at this ceremony was an affirmation of the importance of academia, of carefully studying the world, of acknowledging reality. It is a favorite tactic of opponents of civil rights to deny the history and persistence of injustice. And it is important too, to take full measure of the power of protest, of community organization, of ordinary people to effect political change. History is a powerful source of inspiration.
It was the Boston Symphony Youth Orchestra, though, that really stole the show. They were almost too good to be true--black children, white children, brown children, following the same score, playing beautiful music. “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,” said King, in 1962. “They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.” At the end of the ceremony we locked arms while the orchestra played, sang “We Shall Overcome,” and walked out into the cold afternoon, damp-cheeked, united, and newly courageous.