More than 175 individuals joined hands in a circle Sunday to sing “We Shall Overcome” at a program honoring and celebrating the lives and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
The group swayed together at the First United Methodist Church in Oneonta at the culmination of a two-hour program that likely would have pleased its honorees.
The program, sponsored by the Oneonta Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the City of Oneonta Commission on Community Relations & Human Rights, featured a variety of powerful speakers and musical performances.
A highlight of the program came when Reginald Brunson passionately recited excerpts of Mandela’s “Anti-Apartheid” speech and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to a reverent audience which reflected diverse ages and racial backgrounds.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you hear those words,” Lee Fisher, president of the Oneonta Branch of the NAACP said. “It does something to you.”
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday marking the birthday of the civil rights leader, who was born Jan. 15, 1929, and died April 4, 1968. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Former South African President Mandela, who served 27 years in prison for anti-apartheid activities, died Dec. 5, 2013.
Sadiq Abdushahid, who played drums for several musical selections during Sunday’s program, said there was a “fantastic turnout,” and imagined a world with the same level of compassion that the audience seemed to have.
“At gatherings like this, we get a chance to see what life would be like if we all worked together like Dr. King dreamed about,” Abdushahid said. “For instance, I am a Muslim and they welcome me here.”
Before reading an Oneonta city proclamation honoring King and Mandela, Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller urged the audience to continue their legacy by committing to uphold their ideals and replace prejudice and hate with love and understanding. Miller wondered aloud what could have been if King had lived as long as Mandela, who died at the age of 95.
Joanna Fisher, assistant secretary of Oneonta’s NAACP, said King would be “overjoyed” by the election of President Barack Obama, but would be upset by wars, bullying of children, and the poverty that remains today.
“We can’t leave here today just saying ‘What a great program,’” Fisher said. “We have to look at our community and think ‘are we our brothers’ keepers? Or are we just comfortable in our own houses?’”
Fisher also said people sometimes forget that King was a minister first, and that he believed he was called by God to bring people of all races together in love and peace.
Other highlights of the program included a performance of two original songs by two Job Corps Academy students, a performance of “Precious Lord” by SUNY Oneonta’s Voices of Serenity gospel choir, the reading of several Langston Hughes poems by six Oneonta Middle School students and a duet performance of “Pie Jesu” by Yolanda Sharpe and Craig Morrow.
Regina Betts, who helped plan the program, said she thought it went very well and was glad to see different aged students participate.
“I’m happy to see so many people appreciating the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mandela and their messages of peace and equality,” Betts said.
Delanor Davis, chair of the NAACP membership committee, said more than 50 people signed up to become NAACP members after the program, which was followed by refreshments.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Davis said. “People see that rights are still being trampled on left and right and they want to get involved.”
Davis said donations that were given at the end of the program will go toward an annual $500 scholarship the NAACP gives to one graduating high school student who is entering college. She also said a SUNY Oneonta chapter of the NAACP is in the works.
Lee Fisher said he believes the city needs to take the “togetherness” that was so evident during the rousing program and put it into action on a daily basis.
“Today was very inspiring,” Fisher said. “But it’s not just about the speeches and poems or musical performances. We need to make it happen. King and Mandela could inspire and lead the masses, and they’re still doing it after they’re gone. We have to pick up the slack in our own communities and continue toward their dream.”