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On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a legacy of social justice

  • Sarah Harper of Northampton during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence  at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church. <br/>

    Sarah Harper of Northampton during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • left, Monica Cage,9, her father, Edward Cage, jr. and mother, Vira Cage of Amherst listen as Jeffrey Napolitano, the director of American Friends Service Committee speaks at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon. Vra also spoke about the victory of Charles Wilhite, her nephew who she helped free. <br/>

    left, Monica Cage,9, her father, Edward Cage, jr. and mother, Vira Cage of Amherst listen as Jeffrey Napolitano, the director of American Friends Service Committee speaks at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon. Vra also spoke about the victory of Charles Wilhite, her nephew who she helped free.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeffrey Napolitano, the director of American Friends Service Committee speaks at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon.

    Jeffrey Napolitano, the director of American Friends Service Committee speaks at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Albert Mosley  during the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church held as part of the MLK festivities.<br/>

    Albert Mosley during the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church held as part of the MLK festivities.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Vera Cage, talks about the community action she participated in that help to get the charges removed from her nephew Charles Wilhite at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon.<br/>

    Vera Cage, talks about the community action she participated in that help to get the charges removed from her nephew Charles Wilhite at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bruce Bokor of Northampton during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence  at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church. <br/><br/>

    Bruce Bokor of Northampton during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Emma Roderick, of Northampton, during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence  at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church. <br/><br/>

    Emma Roderick, of Northampton, during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • left, Darius Cage,6, of Amherst,  Edward Cage, jr his father, and  Edwards daughter Monica Cage,9, listen as  Vira Cage 9, the children's mother speaks  at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon about getting the charges dropped against her nephew Charles Wilhite.

    left, Darius Cage,6, of Amherst, Edward Cage, jr his father, and Edwards daughter Monica Cage,9, listen as Vira Cage 9, the children's mother speaks at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon about getting the charges dropped against her nephew Charles Wilhite. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tracie Bulter-Kurth and her son Jasper Bulter-Kurth,7 of Easthampton during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence  at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church.

    Tracie Bulter-Kurth and her son Jasper Bulter-Kurth,7 of Easthampton during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sarah Harper of Northampton during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence  at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church. <br/>
  • left, Monica Cage,9, her father, Edward Cage, jr. and mother, Vira Cage of Amherst listen as Jeffrey Napolitano, the director of American Friends Service Committee speaks at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon. Vra also spoke about the victory of Charles Wilhite, her nephew who she helped free. <br/>
  • Jeffrey Napolitano, the director of American Friends Service Committee speaks at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon.
  • Albert Mosley  during the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church held as part of the MLK festivities.<br/>
  • Vera Cage, talks about the community action she participated in that help to get the charges removed from her nephew Charles Wilhite at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon.<br/>
  • Bruce Bokor of Northampton during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence  at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church. <br/><br/>
  • Emma Roderick, of Northampton, during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence  at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church. <br/><br/>
  • left, Darius Cage,6, of Amherst,  Edward Cage, jr his father, and  Edwards daughter Monica Cage,9, listen as  Vira Cage 9, the children's mother speaks  at Edwards Church as part of the MLK festivities Monday afternoon about getting the charges dropped against her nephew Charles Wilhite.
  • Tracie Bulter-Kurth and her son Jasper Bulter-Kurth,7 of Easthampton during a Tree of Violence activity where the group connected the root cause of violence to acts of violence  at the Help Increase the Peace Program Monday afternoon at Edwards Church.

At the convocation, held at Edwards Church, speaker Vira Cage of Amherst stood the podium looking out at the audience of about 30 and made note of the diversity of races and ages present. She described her work on behalf of her nephew, Charles Wilhite, recently acquitted in Springfield in a murder retrial.

She and others organized support for the retrial for Wilhite, 29, a black man, who she said had no physical ties to the murder scene.

“It is the legacy of Martin Luther King that even if you don’t have deep pockets, if you have deep hearts you can really make change for justice,” Cage said. She urged people to join together for those “who want to escape the reality of being young, black, brown in a city.”

Later, a workshop that drew a couple dozen participants returned to King’s ideas about nonviolence and prejudice. In the “Help Increase the Peace Program Workshop” a popular education program created by the American Friends Service Committee, five facilitators led discussions and activities aimed at helping young people face the roots of violence, according to Jeff Napolitano, director of the western Massachusetts AFSC office. He noted that such teaching is in line with King’s legacy.

The program is now being offered at Peck Middle School in Holyoke, and may expand to the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley.

Facilitator Raul Matta of Holyoke introduced the group to a small, gray, plush elephant. The person holding the elephant was the only person allowed to talk. From this moment on, the elephant was constantly being thrown around the circle to the next willing speaker.

Everyone had something to contribute.

Discussions identified ground rules for the space, varying from 7-year-old Jasper Butler-Kurth’s suggestion to forbid swearing, to other participants suggestions to simply be honest. In an activity called “Tree of Violence,” participants identified types of violence like “blaming the victim” and stereotyping. Later, during a discussion of whether or not these types of violence all stemmed from the same cause, they agreed to disagree.

Facilitator Thao Le, a Hampshire College student, said she hoped the program would succeed in fostering conversation and promoting nonviolence, just as King tried to do. “He was anti-war,” she said. “He tried to bring peace.”

Participant Charles Mosley of Northampton said the workshop inspired him “to try and better understand people, not for who I think they might be, but who they really are.”

Later, at a multifaith celebration across the street at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, a crowd of between 100 and 150 heard the Rev. Janet C. Bush make a call to action.

“One of life’s most persistent and urgent questions is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ” she said.

“We need our dreams in 2013 just as much as in 1963,” said the Rev. Matilda Rose Cantwell, referring to Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech.

Throughout the celebration, Smith College students addressed environmental justice, economic justice and civil rights, and nonviolence, encouraging people to set goals and work in coalitions.

Cantwell urged the audience to view these social problems as separate but related. The solutions, she suggested, are part of King’s legacy.

The local musical group The Nields performed at the service, encouraging everyone to clap in unison.

Meanwhile, Butler-Kurth took the lessons of the workshop and celebration to heart.

“We believe in how Martin Luther King tried to change the segregation problem” he said.

His mother, Tracie Butler-Kurth, said she took Jasper to the events to help give the day meaning.

“It is a day off school,” she said, “but I wanted him to realize it isn’t a regular day off.”

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