Reading, MA — Like many other events this year, the annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day was different than it has been in previous years. Instead of piling into the RMHS Performing Arts Center, audience members this year were invited to take part in the celebration virtually as the pre-recorded event was streamed starting at 10 am yesterday on the Human Relations Advisory Committee’s Facebook page.
While there were still fan-favorites such as performances from the Korean Church of the Nazarene and the young members of the Friends of METCO Choir, the MLK Jr. event this year struck a markedly different tone than it has in previous years. In the face of summer-long protests against racial injustice and pandemic that has exacerbated inequalities both racially and economically, Dr. King’s calls for racial equality take on a more urgent meaning this year. The event, which was hosted and by the Human Relations Advisory Committee (HRAC), sought to reflect this urgency, filling the event with videos of speeches and performances that challenged Reading residents to call for change not only in their community but all across the country.
The event was kicked off with a speech by John Goldlust, chair of the Human Relations Advisory Committee, who introduced the theme of this year’s event.
‘The events of the past year have led HRAC to want to stress ‘Beloved Community’ as this year’s theme. Dr. King popularized the notion of ‘Beloved Community’ in his many speeches and sermons. He defined it as a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings. I hope we can all agree:; his vision of Beloved Community is needed now more than ever,” said Goldlust.
The hour-long event featured videos from several community groups, such as an invocation provided by the Reading Clergy Association, a recording of a 2018 performance by the Friends of METCO Choir, and a short documentary called “Racism in America” that was created by Ben Goldlust and Dylan Silva, which focussed on the pressures of being Black in a predominantly white town and the pressures of being Black in the U.S.
The event also featured a performance by Cole Grant, who represented Poem Reading and read “I Dream A World” by Langston Hughes, a clip from the RMHS Drama Club’s fall show Act Up of the cast singing “Somewhere,” and representatives of RMHS Teachers Against Racism who read the poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo. Performances also included a poetry reading by RMHS junior Smirtha Srinivasan, a slideshow about what Beloved Community means to Parker Homeroom 208A, as well as prayer from the Korean Church of the Nazarene. Video speeches by Reading residents Karen Herrick and Mark and Linda Snow Dockser were also featured, who spoke of their personal reflections on Martin Luther King Jr’s work.
“Thank you to everyone who has been working to move our community forward to a place where all who live, work, worship, and visit will feel welcome, appreciated, and supported. We stand committed to help our Beloved Community and encourage others to join with us,” said Mark and Linda Snow Dockser.
The 2021 Martin Luther King Jr event also featured videos of speeches from the Rally for Racial Justice that took place downtown in June of 2020. Speakers included Kevin Dua, Latoya Kibusi, Philmore Phillip II, and Reading METCO Director Grant Hightower. Dua spoke of how, even though he is a resident of Reading, he often feels as though he is unsafe in the community due to the color of his skin. Hightower spoke of the emotional turmoil he feels after watching yet another Black man be killed. Phillip said of the similarities he shares with the young people of color who have been killed by institutional racism.
“For I too indulge in sweets, tasty beverages, and having my hood on during a cold day in February, like Trayvon Martin. For I too enjoy going for long runs around the neighborhood, like Ahmaud Arbery. For I too like to be outside in the parks, having fun and enjoying the weather, like Tamir Rice. Unfortunately, the things that I love can kill me too, like the countless others who have lost their lives who I have not named,” said Phillip, a former participant of the METCO program.
Kibusi, who is a current RMHS student, spoke of the racism she and other students of color currently face in Reading and called for a greater focus on African American history in school curriculums. She told the personal story of having a classmate tell her a racist joke during class in the seventh grade.
“I froze. Not because of the reason that you think it is. I did not know what the n-word meant, and I did not get a step by step lesson on what to do if a white person says the n-word, unlike how every kid gets a step by step lesson on what to do if they get bullied. I did not want to make him uncomfortable, so I smiled and let him finish his joke. When he finished his joke, I saw in his eyes that he wanted me to laugh, so I laughed. I spent the whole school day feeling hollow and unseen. Hollow because of the lack of knowledge within myself. Unseen because no one saw my color. People toss this saying ‘kids don’t see color’ around like it’s a Bible verse. Kids should see color and be conscious of the privilege and lack of privilege that comes with it.” said Kibusi.
The event, as always, concluded with a communal singing of “We Shall Overcome.” Although audience members were unable to celebrate this moment with one another in the performing arts center, they were invited to watch the closing moment from the 2019 MLK Day Celebration and sing along with the lyrics on-screen. The event can still be enjoyed on the HRAC’s Facebook page.