Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Lessons In Diversity

I wrote this for PORTSMOUTH PATCH, which was picked up by other Patch sites, about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and its history in New Hampshire.  Democrats led the way during the 30 year battle to adopt the holiday, nationally and statewide.  The late Senator Ted Kennedy led the national effort, and many Democrats were in the front of the statewide cause.

Even though I emphasize the involvement of Portsmouth residents in this commentary, statewide the leaders included Governor Hugh Gallen, Governor Jeanne Shaheen, Chris Spirou, Mary Chambers, Rick Trombly, Manchester Rep. Lionel Johnson, and many others including Arnie Alpert of the American Friends Services Committee and labor and business leaders.  This is something of which Democrats can be forever proud, for it was an effort not only to honor a great man, but a great cause.  – Jim

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:  Lessons In Diversity

Credit The National Archives

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
This weekend, skiing resorts are heavily promoting their events, and we’re going to see lots of car sales and special buys at the malls advertising their great “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day” offers.   Nothing is especially wrong with that, of course.  Hopefully families and friends will engage in those shopping and skiing adventures together, and while doing so will reflect on the light and love of which a great man spoke long ago.But like all of our national holidays, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which officially is on Monday, is more than just a day off, or a chance to shop.  Since it was adopted by the federal government and all the states after a three decade fight, the holiday has evolved into days of service and days of learning about the ideas and ideals of a great man, and an even greater cause.

It is also on that day that we share an appreciation for our diversity, and make a commitment to fight racism, prejudice, and hate.   And this year on that day, President Barack Obama, who might never have been elected without Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who paved the path, will be sworn in for his second term. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a time for us to celebrate the ways we are alike, and ponder the ways we are different.

As human beings, we have vast commonality — biologically, we are more than 99 percent the same.  But it is our unique differentness that makes our lives worth living.  Accepting, even welcoming, those differences is what makes the adventure of life sometimes challenging, yet always interesting and rewarding.  In all the ways we are alike — yet not – makes human beings and all life on this planet so much of a wonder.

If you live long enough, you can see a lot happen.  I had the chance to see much of the fight for the adoption, then the evolution, of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day from the beginning, through to the end — and to see how it has become as meaningful as it is today.

In November of 1978, after my election to the State Senate, I was asked by Portsmouth Mayor Eileen Foley and The Rev. Ralph Henley of the New Hope Baptist Church to introduce a bill having New Hampshire join the then just seven other states that recognized Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The federal government was at that point still years off from adopting the holiday, but states were acting one-by-one.

That legislation became the first bill I introduced into the Senate the next January, but it was soon defeated.   Before then, however, Rev. Henley spoke at the public hearing for the bill and began to win friends right away.  That day, I introduced him to Gov. Hugh Gallen, who was so impressed that he issued a proclamation recognizing Dr. King, the first in our state.  Rev. Henley was a visionary on this cause.  And Gov. Gallen was a courageous leader for our state.

The state’s largest newspaper, and others, were battering Dr. King’s memory by saying he was a communist, Marxist, and anti-Vietnam activist.  While the latter was proudly true, the other attacks were made up, but they had their intended effect and sidetracked New Hampshire’s adoption of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the next two decades.  Each of the nearly dozen bills that were introduced in those years lost, but on each the cause grew greater support

Eventually, instead of being one of the first states to commemorate MLK Day, we won the race to be last in approving the holiday, but that twenty year effort was in itself an example to us of what Dr. King had gone through on a national level.

The hearts and minds of our own state’s citizens changed as the discussion continued until, in June of 1999, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen was finally able to put her signature on a bill that made ours the 50th state to formally adopt the holiday.

Portsmouth citizens had a special role not only in adopting Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but also continuing the cause of discussing diversity and fighting racism.  In the early 1970s, the fight to recognize Dr. King’s legacy began here, with marches from the old New Hope Baptist Church on Pearl Street to Market Square on cold January days and nights.

Those parades were something to behold, with dozens of our citizens shivering arm-in-arm but with warm hearts for an important cause.  As time went on, coalitions formed which included citizens from all walks of life from all over the state.  Local leaders like The Rev. Ralph Henley, Minister Elease Gray, Nathaniel Holloway, and Dr. Arthur Hilson were among the growing many who made it happen.

And in more recent years the lessons of diversity continue and grow with the efforts to create the African Burying Ground Memorial, which in decades and centuries from now will become the spot in the center of our community where people from all over will take a moment to ponder our past, and how we can become a greater people.

By remembering the lives and gifts of the many slaves who were buried three hundred and even four hundred years ago under what is now part of Portsmouth’s downtown, we not only honor them, but we honor our heritage.  We are what we are today because of some of Portsmouth’s earliest heroes who were laid to rest there.  Readers can learn more about the memorial effort by going to http://www.africanburyinggroundnh.org.

On that cause too, I had the chance to watch the effort close up.  I was on the first African Burying Ground Committee a decade ago, initially chaired by City Councilor John Hynes, so I saw an amazing diverse collection of human beings work together for something important.  It continues with some of our finest visionaries — including Vernis Jackson, Mary Bailey, Valerie Cunningham and Councilor Chris Dwyer, among many others.

They have been working to create a beautiful memorial on Chestnut Street to forever cherish those who are there.  The memorial will have a natural simplicity, yet be powerful in message.   And most meaningful will be that just as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has become, the African Burying Ground Memorial will be a focal point of reflection and remembering.

Just as we use the holiday to celebrate the life of a great man and his principles, in ten, fifty, a hundred years from now people will come together and commemorate the lives of the slaves buried here, and remember their contributions to our own lives

School children will learn that a way to become greater people is to treat each other with equality and fairness.  Because, on this Earth there is nothing more important than the way we treat one another.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the African Burying Ground Memorial are not just about our past and those who came before us.  They are really about us today and our future.  Dr. King, and those who are in their sacred resting place in our downtown, provided to us the gift of our diversity.

This year, the N.H. Legislature will discuss excellent legislation proposed by another one of Portsmouth’s visionaries, State Senator Martha Fuller Clark.  She is sponsoring a bill that will give freedom to nearly two dozen local slaves who petitioned the New Hampshire General Assembly more than two centuries ago for their freedom.  The Assembly did not act then, but the Legislature can now, and right one more wrong.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. had lived, there are many ‘What If’s” about our history that could have changed.  He offered leadership in the 1960s to stop the Vietnam War.  Would the wars and tragedies since then have been altered if his own efforts to break down racist attitudes and barriers to world peace had not been stopped in April of 1968?

Dr. King would be 84 today, and I think our world would be a much better place if he had lived.  And our people would be more accepting, understanding, and loving of each other.  But his message can still continue to grow, and glow.

By every good deed we do, and every act of love we show toward one another, we make the world a better place for all of us.  John Lennon wrote, “Imagine all the people living life in peace…imagine all the people sharing all the world, and the world will live as one.”

On all matters of diversity — in appreciating our gay and lesbian citizens, our transgender friends, accepting those who believe in a variety of religions, as well as through efforts to break down barriers created by sexism and racism — the work and words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon should always be on our minds.

They give us pause to think, and to become better people while we live, only so temporarily, on this planet that we call “home.”

  • hannah

    Well, most people are generous and most people are good. Some people are mean and predatory. What I’m thinking today is that it’s a mistake to focus on a generalized effort to “better” mankind, especially since it seems to distract us from the bad guys and leave them off the hook.
    The bad guys, in case there’s a question, are the people who exploit and abuse their own kind.
    “You always hurt the one you love” is a lie, but it is a popular saying that pleads to excuse the abuse because everybody does it. Abuse is not loving. And the man who killed Martin Luther King did not love him.

    The big issue today is the ownership of guns. Killing Martin Luther King has taught the people of the United States nothing. However, to the extent that owning something has always served as a substitute for having one’s rights respected, it makes sense.

    Perhaps, in asking for love, Dr. King was asking for too much. Respect for one’s bodily integrity and not having to fear assault would be enough. Sometimes it seems we pay so much attention to death that simple assault gets a pass.

    Indeed, being assaulted at the air port is now part of the price of getting transported on a plane, unless one can afford to fly private. Which is not to suggest that general aviation passengers should be assaulted like eveyone else. Equality, it turns out, is not the boon we expected. It has been proved possible to deprive everyone equally of their human and their civil rights.

    Btw, Newmarket is likely the birthplace and home of the first African American elected to public office, over and over again, in the 18th Century. His name was Wentworth Cheswill.
    http://hannah.smith-family.com/?p=2814

  • Rep. Jim Splaine

    Quite true, Hannah. I do think that by seeking out the good in anyone — even finding elusive love wherever we can — is important. Too many of us find a reason why not to like someone; yet, there is always — always — much we have in common even with those with whom we greatly disagree. By searching for the good points, even if on the edges, makes life more living for any of us.

    President Barack Obama often says “We’re all in this together.” My mantra for quite some years has been similar, which you’ll see in numerous past blog posts here: “We’re all in this adventure of life together.” I think Dr. King’s view over the mountaintop might have been a vision of a greater future for us all. We’ll get there.

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