Throughout New Hampshire, cities and towns are marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day with prayer services, concerts, community forums, candlelight vigils and the reminder that the Granite State was among the last states in the nation to recognize the holiday.
President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to make the slain civil rights leader’s birthday a federal holiday in 1983. In 1991, New Hampshire established Civil Rights Day. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day was first celebrated.
“In 1982, when the Council for Civil Rights in New Hampshire was looking for a place to hold a tribute to Martin Luther King, this was the only church in the state to open its doors for the event,” Rev. Margaret Lewis, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Nashua, told those who gathered Saturday at the church’s 32nd annual MLK celebration.
Manchester is celebrating this afternoon with a community potluck dinner and traditional program of speeches and music, Portsmouth held its 25th annual MLK Breakfast with poetry and musical performances by Seacoast area students. Pat’s Peak holds an annual “Diversity Day” with discounted admission prices.
At First Baptist, Lewis led church members and guests in an evening of prayer, music and reflection that celebrated King’s life while acknowledging, as she said, “The MLK dream hasn’t fully come to fruition.”
Gov. Maggie Hassan sent this message to the church: “The work to realize the dream is unending,” said Hassan. “I look forward to working with you to make the Granite State a more welcoming and inclusive place for everyone who calls New Hampshire home.”
Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau said King’s words are a never-ending invitation to understand and reflect on issues surrounding equality and human rights.
“They are words of inspiration that feed our minds and souls and hearts,” said Lozeau.
Past First Baptist celebrations have featured prominent keynote speakers such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd and African-American historian Valerie Cunningham of Portsmouth. This year, former television journalist Liz Walker, now the pastor of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston, warmed up the winter night with her memories of King and her vision of how faith builds on the foundation he created.
“God calls all of us, but the problem has never been in the transmission; it’s in the reception,” she said.
Walker said Americans tend to do everything to excess, a characteristic that actually works in the case of love.
“Love in excess, that’s what God is calling us to do,” she said. “He wants us to love not just the people who look like us, but also the ones who don’t.”
Walker’s father was also a minister. She grew up in a church-centered home but said her vision of the role of faith changed after watching and listening to King.
“God wanted him to get out of the pulpit,” she said. “The church had to step out into the world. King did what he had to do, and he did it for love.”
Since the start, music has played a key role in the First Baptist MLK celebrations. On Saturday, the New Hampshire Gay Men Chorus was scheduled to perform, but the group got caught in a Manchester snow jam. There were still plenty of high notes from the First Baptist Church Choir, the New Fellowship Baptist Church Gospel Choir, and soloists Julia Leonard and Sophia White.
Together those musical voices helped drown out what Walker described as, “Voices in the world trying so hard to divide us up.”
For Walker, King’s message of equality, understanding and respect is essential for a world that faces a critical choice between division or unity.
“We’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” she said. “We need each other. Oh my God, how we need each other now.”