Local groups recommit to civil rights movement lessons

Last modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Local religious institutions, a political action group and an area nonprofit have teamed up to organize events to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The events begin at 8 a.m. and run until after 9 p.m. Monday.

“There’s something for everyone,” said Jeff Napolitano, director of the western Massachusetts office of the American Friends Service Committee, which has taken the lead in organizing the city’s MLK Day observances for 29 years. “People have their pick of things over the course of the day.”

Collaborating with Napolitano this year are two leaders from area religious institutions, the Rev. Janet Bush, minister at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, and the Rev. Matilda Cantwell, a multifaith fellow with the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Smith College.

“There is a much stronger interfaith component to it than there was before,” Napolitano said.

“We want to remember and honor (King’s) legacy and recommit to work to achieve some of his vision,” Bush said. “The collaboration including Smith is exciting, so it really feels like a community collaboration.”

Starting with an 8 a.m. community pancake breakfast at Christ United Methodist Church, 271 Rocky Hill Road, the day’s activities also include a convocation and youth workshop at 12:30 p.m. at the Edwards Church, an afternoon interfaith celebration at the Unitarian Society, and a talk, “How Racism Harms White People,” in Stoddard Hall at Smith College at 7 p.m. led by the Media Education Foundation.

In addition, there will be a walking tour on the history of the abolition movement in Florence at 10 a.m. starting at the Sojourner Truth statue at the corner of Park and Pine streets. (See related story for full schedule and details.)

“We certainly don’t expect that everyone will go to everything. There are many opportunities for people to recommit themselves and gather in community,” Bush said. “There are lots of ways to inspire one another, so that’s what we’re hoping will happen.”

Cantwell, a United Church of Christ minister, said there is logic in bringing together religious groups and political organizations to plan events honoring King and the movement he led.

“The civil rights movement was an interfaith movement and also King himself was a person of faith,” she said. Many of the activists and ordinary people drawn to the movement, she noted, found “common ground” in their faith traditions.

Cantwell said it is important to do more than honor King as a visionary leader.

“When we only celebrate the man, when we only celebrate King, we forget all of the hard work of the civil rights movement,” she said.

She said organizers of the MLK Day events in Northampton hope that participants will draw inspiration from the example of the civil rights movement as they think about today’s social problems.

“There are so many contemporary issues that are happening right now that beguile us,” Cantwell said. “We really have resources in the theological, philosophical and ethical underpinnings of the civil rights movement.”

Bush said the aim of the breakfast is to allow members of the community to engage in small-group discussions on four contemporary topics that can draw inspiration from the civil rights movement: environmental justice, economic justice, civil rights and nonviolence.

“What we’re hoping is that people will learn from each other and that they’ll share about the day and find opportunities to collaborate with one another,” Bush said.

Cantwell and Bush will team up to lead a 3:30 p.m. service titled “Multifaith Celebration: Living King’s Legacy.” It will feature readings and music by The Nields.

“People need to have discussions and learn about history, but having a time to be inspired is important,” said Cantwell. “I’m sort of thinking of it as a call to hope.”


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