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Speaker carries MLK’s legacy at annual community breakfast

  • Joshua Anderson, 16, left, and Artie McCollum, both of Amherst, converse Jan. 13, 2018 at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Erik Lyster of Northampton, left, hands his son Calvin, 1, to the boy's grandfather Gary Tartakov Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks, left, and Elizabeth Bell, both of Amherst, hug Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Juliette Kamara of Granby holds her granddaughter Agnes Loua, 2, of Chicopee, Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • CaroleAnn Camp, left, Ekua Ampiah-Bonney, 8, front, Julianne Bowen and Hala Heather Lord, all of the Amherst Area Gospel Choir, sing Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Attendees of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program react Jan. 13, 2018 to a song by the Amherst Area Gospel Choir at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Guest speaker Onawumi Jean Moss sings Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Mary Custard, dean of students at Amherst Regional High School, left, former Amherst state Rep. Ellen Story, guest speaker Onawumi Jean Moss and state Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, hug Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, addresses the audience Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Guest speaker Onawumi Jean Moss addresses the audience Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at Amherst Regional Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • From left, Mary Custard, dean of students at Amherst Regional High School, Ellen Story, guest speaker Onawumi Jean Moss and state Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, sing during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program Saturday at Amherst Regional Middle School. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kayara Hardnett-Barnes of Amherst Regional High School addresses the audience after receiving the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship from Richmond Ampiah-Bonney, chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee of Amherst, right, Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at the middle school. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sahar Douglas of Amherst Regional High School addresses the audience after receiving the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at the middle school. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Aviva Weinbaum of Amherst Regional High School addresses the audience after receiving the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at the middle school. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Amherst Regional High School dance instructor Tracy Vernon, right, hugs Richmond Ampiah-Bonney, chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee of Amherst, after being awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Citizen’s Award for her 16 years of dedication to her students Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at the middle school. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sahar Douglas of Amherst Regional High School, right, is congratulated by guest speaker Onawumi Jean Moss after receiving the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Jan. 13, 2018 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program at the middle school. Hala Heather Lord of the Amherst Area Gospel Choir looks on, at left. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sonji Johnson-Anderson of Amherst raises her hands during a closing song at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast program Saturday at Amherst Regional Middle School. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2018

AMHERST — On Jan. 15, 1968, Onawumi Jean Moss huddled in the basement of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and celebrated a humble man’s 39th birthday. That man, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wasn’t there to celebrate his birthday, though.

“He’s working with a rainbow coalition of people who have come to help him put together the Poor People’s Campaign. That’s why we’re there,” Moss said, telling her story Saturday to a crowd of several hundred in the auditorium of the Amherst Regional Middle School.

Moss, 81, of Amherst, was the keynote speaker at the 34th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast of Amherst, held every year in honor of the civil rights leader who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, less than three months after Moss was with him on his birthday.

“We’re in a humble place with a man who’s wearing denim, blue jeans and a winter coat — just a plain winter coat to keep him warm — who doesn’t even realize it’s his birthday,” Moss said. “Sister Clayton came in and said, ‘Reverend, excuse me, Reverend, it’s your birthday.’”

Many of those at the church wore blue jeans in solidarity with King and his work for the poor and underserved. The Poor People’s Campaign, a Washington demonstration calling for human and economic rights for the impoverished, was largely organized by King, and was still carried out after his death.

Morning jazz

Saturday’s celebration started with a breakfast in the school’s cafeteria, and moved to the auditorium, where state Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and former Amherst state Rep. Ellen Story served as masters of ceremonies. The auditorium ceremony featured live music and announcements of scholarships and awards, in addition to the speech by Moss, known professionally as “The Soulful Storyteller.”

At 9 a.m., hundreds began filling the cafeteria with the sounds of laughter and the smells of pancakes and sausages. Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, later honored by Rosenberg for his progressive work regarding criminal justice reform, said he probably has come to the breakfast for the last 15 years.

“It’s a beautiful ceremony with the speakers and the scholarships, music, and it sends a great message about justice and equality,” Sullivan said.

The Amherst-Pelham Regional High School Jazz Band played as the crowd began to transition from breakfast to the ceremony and received thanks for their contribution.

“It means the world to us to support causes like this,” said Aiden Foucault Etheridge, a senior who plays upright bass with the band.

Inside the auditorium, the crowd listened to, and sang along with, the other two musical groups, the Fort River Elementary School Chorus and the Amherst Area Gospel Choir.

Impressed by the chorus, Moss later referred to the 13 young singers as “my babies” and opined that the songs selected were fitting in celebrating King.

“One of the quotes in your program says, ‘darkness cannot get rid of darkness, only light can.’ They got up and sang ‘Flashlight.’ Then another quote in there talks about needing somebody else, and they sang ‘Lean on Me,’” Moss later said, quoting King.

The Amherst Area Gospel Choir did renditions of the civil rights song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black.”

‘Unduly separated’

After a moment of remembrance for local civil rights leaders, Story took the stage to introduce Moss.

“For a long time, she was the full-time associate dean of students at Amherst College, so that’s how she spent her nine-to-fives and more, but while she was doing that she was also telling stories and got so good at it that she got major awards,” Story said, detailing some of Moss’ career highlights, such as winning the Zora Neale Hurston Award and speaking at Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential inauguration.

Moss shared her experience with, and thoughts of, King, whose achievements, she said, made him “destined to be a sacrifice.” She called for unity among all peoples, for people to try to develop some of King’s traits and, regardless of the nation’s political climate, be courageous.

“We can never again live apart. I don’t care who is tweeting stupid stuff — and I had to work to get stuff out — because they want to reprogram the right way of thinking,” Moss said.

She continued, “What Dr. King has said, back in 1964 when he was in the process of receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, he said in an argument, ‘We must do this because we are a family unduly separated in ideas, cultures and interests.’”

After Moss’ speech, Richmond Ampiah-Bonney, chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee of Amherst, awarded three students the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship. The award, Ampiah-Bonney explained, is only earned after members of the school community nominate the students, from whom the recipients are chosen.

The three recipients, Aviva Weinbaum, Sahar Douglas and Kayara Hardnett-Barnes, all seniors at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School, earned the scholarships as aspiring defenders of social justice.

Amherst-Pelham Regional High School dance instructor Tracy Vernon was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Citizen’s Award for her 16 years of dedication to her students.

After the ceremony, Ampiah-Bonney, who is responsible for invited guest speakers each year, expressed happiness with the way the day went.

“Wonderful. It was so wonderful,” Ampiah-Bonney said. “I’ve been dreaming of having Onawumi here for years — she just brings the house down.”

Rosenberg, too, thought the ceremony was “beautiful.”

“The spirit is here. The spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. lives on in Hampshire County,” Rosenberg said after the event. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed this, and it’s such an honor to be invited.”