New Bedford’s “Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Remembrance Celebration” began at 2:30 p.m. with a march. We were to march from Bethel AME church down County Street to Centre United Methodist Church, a total of about three short blocks. The program at United Methodist wasn’t going to begin until 4:00, so we stood in front of Bethel church for half an hour (in occasional light drizzle), while people waved at friends, schmoozed with each other (New Bedford is a great town for schmoozing), and children asked when we were going to start walking. Andy and some other people passed out blue buttons saying “Marriage Equality Coalition of the SouthCoast,” and more than half the people there had one pinned on their rain coats.
The ministers were all supposed to stand together near the front of the march, but I stayed in the middle of the crowd so I could schmooze and say hi to people: Everett, Louie, Kathy, Andy, John, half a dozen other people. At last we began to walk. I walked with Peter and his mom and dad. Peter was happy because the road went slightly downhill, so he could just coast along on his wheelie shoes, with an occasional light push from his dad. It was a mixed crowd, from the palest white skin (like mine) through every shade of white and brown to the darkest brown.
Preachers and politicians
Once inside, I lost Peter and his mom and dad. By a quarter past three, I was sitting in the very back of the huge church, near some other people from First Unitarian. The program was printed in tiny type, and went on for two pages. Seven clergypeople were scheduled to speak; seven politicians were scheduled to speak; the consensus of the people around me was that it was going to be a very long program indeed. “We’ll be here till seven,” I predicted. “Not me,” said the distinguished-looking African American man at the end of the pew, “why do you think I’m sitting in the back row?”
In spite of gentle admonitions from Rev. David Lima, the master of ceremonies, the preachers and politicians all exceeded their alloted time of one minute each (except for Rev. Bradbury, the rector of Grace Episcopal, who kept his bit to one minute). I didn’t mind that they all went over their allotted time, not much anyway. Rev. Mark Green invoked the presence of God to bless this assembly, and to help us remember the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King. City Councillor Brian Gomes told about how he managed to get a job as a soda jerk at an all-white soda fountain in New Bedford because of the intervention of an older white woman — and because of the dream set forth by Dr. King. Congressman Barney Frank spun out his vision of a truly fair and just society that does not discriminate on the basis of race, sexual orientation, or anything else — a vision like that of Dr. King. State Representative Tony Cabral told how his family had escaped the old Portuguese dictatorship, come to America when he was fourteen, following a dream — a dream like that of Dr. King.
What he said…
At some point, I noticed a small knot of people walking up the aisle just past us: Deval Patrick, the new governor of Massachusetts, had arrived. People started applauding; people were on their feet applauding. Next to me, Katey said, “He’s shorter than I thought he was.” Patrick got an extended standing ovation, just for walking in the door. We all sat down, and the program continued as before — but now there was a lot more excitement in the room.
At last Deval Patrick got up to speak. He started slowly: said he was glad to be there, made a joke about how preachers and politicians could never limit themselves to just one minute of speaking time, apologized that he would have to leave right after he finished speaking. And then he really began to speak, and held us all captivated with his vision, his dream of what Massachusetts could be, if we would all work together. I made some inadequate notes of what he said:
On why he wished he could be present for the whole program: “I didn’t just come to speak to you; I came to listen, to hear what you have to say….”
Speaking of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and equal access to voting in America: “We have done a great deal to make voting easier, but we haven’t done enough to make voting meaningful.”
On the anti-gay marriage amendment ballot initiative: “Letting a majority tell a minority just how much freedom they can have” is not the right thing to do.
“I think we’re all getting tired of debates about the differences between the right and the left, and what we want is debates about the difference between right and wrong.”
Those four short quotes don’t communicate the feeling we got sitting there, listening to the new governor speak. He presents a powerful vision, his words have the power to motivate people out of passivity and into action. And hearing someone like Patrick in person makes a difference — if you’re a Massachusetts resident, make a point of going to hear him speak in person some time and you’ll see what I mean. He has a dream, and it comes across best in person. I’ve been feeling pretty cynical about Massachusetts for some years now, but hearing Patrick speak today gave me hope, and made me want to get active again.
The power of dreams — the power of speech to communicate dreams.