Amherst celebrates Martin Luther King Jr., arts education with commemorative breakfast

Last modified: Thursday, January 28, 2016

AMHERST — When Willie Hill was a boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama, under former Gov. George Wallace, he dreamed of following his father to work in a factory. Now, he directs the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Someone had a dream for me far greater than mine,” he said to a crowd of around 250 at Amherst Regional Middle School Saturday morning, gathered to celebrate the 32nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. community breakfast.

That person, Hill said, was a high school band director who insisted he go to college and study music, pushing him beyond the life he could have imagined. In a morning filled with song and hope, Hill encouraged people young and old to continuously seek their calling and stressed that the arts play a crucial role in education, providing windows to different cultures.

Evoking King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, along with works by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Langston Hughes, Hill urged his listeners to never lose sight of their ambitions and to strive to be the best in their discipline, whether that be music composition or botany.

Along these lines, Richmond Ampiah-Bonney, chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee of Amherst, awarded two students scholarships for academic excellence and community service. The scholarship amount will depend on proceeds from the breakfast. Last year, Ampiah-Bonney said three students each received $500.

Madeleine Hamparian, 18, a senior at Belchertown High School, pushed her school to create a more welcoming environment for transgender students, which she said began with making the handbook more gender neutral. “I hear more solidarity in our footsteps,” Hamparian said.

Nurah Jaradat, 17, a senior at Amherst Regional High School, has worked with Connecticut Voices for Children and participated in the Black Lives Matter movement. She said she first saw the scholarship awarded when she was 7 years old, and had dreamed of it ever since.

“To be bestowed an award in Dr. King’s name is not something to be measured by certificates, money or applause, but can only be measured by the values that one embodies,” she said.

Agnes Zsigmondi McCraven, a music teacher at Crocker Farms Elementary, was awarded the Norma Jean Anderson Civil Rights and Academic Achievement Award for putting together a diverse curriculum, incorporating instruments from around the world. Amherst Regional conductor Patrick Smith, who died in September, was also honored, for his dedication to making music accessible to all students.

Musical inspiration

Songs of freedom and friendship weaved the morning’s program together.

State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, played the piano as the crowd stood to join in a resounding rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Rock Voices, America’s Community Rock Chorus, performed Earl King’s “Let’s Make a Better World,” and the Amherst Area Gospel Choir had the audience clapping along.

Before the speeches, people mingled in the cafeteria, sitting down at student-decorated placemats and forking pancakes off green plastic trays. The Amherst Regional High School Jazz Band performed, as did the Pelham Elementary School Chorus.

Richard Gardner, president of the Buffalo Soldiers Springfield chapter, said he enjoys coming to the breakfast every year because of the diversity it attracts. He scanned the cafeteria, remarking on the variety in color and creed. To him, that’s what it means to celebrate King’s legacy — “coming together.”

Bob Hepner, 53, of Leverett said though he thought for years about attending, this was his first time. He was prompted, ultimately, by “looking for justice in my heart and wanting to bridge the divide I see in the community,”

Amherst Regional High School junior Regina Alkiewicz, 16, of Amherst was there with fellow members of the People of Color United club, setting up and later clearing tables. To Alkiewicz, the breakfast was about honoring a man who “created a lot of changes for minority communities,” she said. “I’m glad we live in a town like Amherst where they support causes such as his.”

Toward the end of the morning festivities, State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg encouraged the community to remember those who came before them.

The auditorium fell silent, then people began to call out the names of heroes, popcorn-style. Among them was Mary Pittman Wyatt, who founded the commemorative breakfast.

Rev. Stacy Grayson of the Goodwin A.M.E. Zion Church in Amherst closed with a benediction.

“Father,” he said, “we thank you for the dream still being alive.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at


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