Danbury celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day

January 16, 2017 GMT

DANBURY - A multicultural and multigenerational crowd rose to its feet five times Monday to cheer songs and speeches inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. during a Baptist church’s celebration of the slain civil rights leader.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” said Dr. Kelly Wood, quoting King during her keynote speech at the 15th annual King Day celebration at New Hope Baptist Church. “My question to you today is during this time of challenge, where do you stand?”

Wood’s speech, which drew two standing ovations, was the highlight of an upbeat program of choral music, jazz and testimony to honor the civil rights martyr.

Speakers stressed that interconnectedness was at the heart of King’s teaching.

“I just want to tell the young people here today that the dream Dr. King spoke of many years ago is a living dream and a lasting dream ... to have compassion for one another, to care for each other and to look for the weak around us and try to lift them up,” Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton told the crowd. “Today in an era where we are sometimes overwhelmed with hate on social media or from anonymous sources, the reality is we need to take the one step each day to reach out and tell the person next to us that we love them, we care for them and we respect them.”

A 23-year-old real estate coordinator attending the program with his mother agreed.

“Even if I wasn’t black, Dr. Martin Luther King, is a major inspirational figure in the world and in history - how in times of violence he could stick to his core values no matter what happened,” said Marcel McCollough. “Such a quest for justice is very inspirational.”

The youth in the church kept the crowd roused throughout the program, with musical numbers and short reflections about King.

The crowd came to its feet in appreciation for a number by the New Hope Baptist Church Youth Choir called “Freedom, Freedom, Dr. King,” sung to the tune of “Mary Had Little Lamb.”

“I thought it was really good we could expand this to children so they can learn about the work of Dr. King as well,” said Jonelle Rochester, 31, a member of the church.

The church rose up from the pews in applause again after a lively rendition of Count Basie’s “All of Me” by the Danbury High School Jazz Band.

The keynote speaker, an endocrinologist who was born in Barbados and considers New Hope her home away from home, gave the short version of King’s life story before relating his vision to today’s reality.

She told the story of a Baptist minister and student of non-violence who became the moral center of the civil rights movement and earned the Nobel Peace Prize before being assassinated.

“The whole world knows who Dr. King is but I think his significance and importance only struck me after I moved here and experienced what it is like to live as a black person in America,” she said before the program began Monday morning. “What he did for us really hit home for me and had most significance for me after I moved here.”

Wood told the crowd during her speech that the discrimination that oppressed blacks in housing, employment and criminal justice during King’s era in the 1950s and 1960s persists today.

The response, she said, was for people of good will to:

Seek out volunteer opportunities.

Be better educated and informed.

Be more involved at the local political level.

Engage more in the conversation about racism.

“Yes, better days are coming,” Wood said, referring to the title of Monday’s program. “But we must work together to change them.”

rryser@newstimes.com; 203-731-3342