PORTSMOUTH — It has been 15 years since New Hampshire officially declared the third Monday in January as an official holiday honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But it has been 25 years since Nate Holloway and a small group of Portsmouth area residents started the Seacoast Martin Luther King Jr. Day Coalition and breakfast event.
As governor, now U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, signed legislation that made New Hampshire the final state in the nation to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The legislation was signed into law in June 1999 and the state's first celebration took place the following January.
During her remarks on Monday, Shaheen vividly recalled growing up in Missouri during segregation. She attended segregated schools and remembers segregated water fountains and bathrooms.
"Since my childhood where I witnessed segregation firsthand, the principle that discrimination has no place in our country has stayed close to my heart," Shaheen said.
She said one of her proudest days as governor was signing into law the bill that made Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a state holiday.
But, she said, she also understands that the nation has yet to fully achieve King's dream.
"While it's true that because of his efforts it is no longer acceptable as a matter of law to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender or ethnicity, it's also an unfortunate reality that all Americans still do not enjoy equal protections under the law because of their sexual orientation or that social mobility is slowly grinding to a halt," Shaheen said.She said the best way to honor King's legacy is for the nation's citizens to recommit themselves to his dream of a country of equal opportunity for all Americans.
"Our work is not complete, but I remain confident that if we work together, we will one day truly achieve his vision for our country," Shaheen said.
The recognition of MLK, Jr. Day in New Hampshire did not come without a fight and was more than 20 years in the making, with Portsmouth Assistant Mayor and former representative Jim Splaine introducing the first legislation.
"It is rewarding for all to see so many people coming together to celebrate and commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day for what it is, a day to talk about freedom and peace," Splaine said on Monday.
United States Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-NH, also spoke at the event.
She said Martin Luther King Jr. day raises the nation's consciousness.
"Each year we do need that moment, that pause, to remember why, what the history was," Shea-Porter said.
She said the nation still has problems, but the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day should be a reminder to look to the politics of hope and reason instead of to the politics of despair.
Portsmouth Mayor Robert Lister read a proclamation from the city marking the 85th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth, Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Hedrick Smith spoke about his time at the New York Times covering King and the Civil Rights movement, and Rev. Lillian Buckley of the Bow Lake Baptist Church in Strafford moved the crowd with her keynote address about being agents of change.
Smith said King is largely remembered for his abilities as an orator, but was also a practical politician and an activist, who believed ordinary people could make America a better country.
"I think we need to think of him not as icon, but an inspiration," Smith said.
Today, Buckley said, society still needs people who are not afraid to act, and who are willing to get up from their own comforts to "throw some rock salt" and create positive change.
Nate Holloway was unable to speak during Monday's event, but his granddaughter, Courtney Harrison, read remarks on his behalf.
Holloway, who is suffering from failing health, encouraged those in attendance at Monday's breakfast to continue being drum majors for justice and keepers of King's legacy.