Carrying on MLK’s legacy to end racism

  • A giant portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. gazes off into the distance from behind the A.P.E. Gallery window in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/SABATO VISCONTI

Staff Writer
Published: 1/18/2021 5:06:11 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Tanisha Arena, executive director of the Springfield-based Arise for Social Justice, wrote an open letter “to our country about who we are — to address the constant rhetoric of, ‘this is not who we are.’”

Arena read her letter as the keynote speaker at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day celebration hosted by the Resistance Center for Peace and Justice. The digital event held on Zoom drew more than 100 people.

“2020 was a year like no other we have seen, but it wasn’t a year like no other we’ve had — it was just on display for all to see,” she said.

Arena spoke about white supremacy, saying “This isn’t strange fruit. It’s one enjoyed by the founders of this land — the fruit of colonization, dominance, violence and supremacy. This is who are were and it’s who we’ve been.”

Referencing Colin Kaepernick, she noted the former player for the San Francisco 49ers kneeled during the national anthem for an entire season and has not played in the NFL since 2017. She said it was the way he chose to protest “the brutality of the police towards Black folks more than the brutality itself that sparked anger.”

Quoting a letter MLK wrote in jail in 1963, Arena said, “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham, but I am sorry that your statement does not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”

Arena criticized the whitewashing of MLK’s history, with people forgetting the number of times he was beaten, jailed, his family threatened, and how his life ended.

Racism has always been a part of this country, she said. “You will know a tree by the fruit that it bears. The fruit of these United States is rotten, infected with white supremacy, laws, policies and ordinances — voter suppression, redlining, gerrymandering, jails replicating slavery a la the 13th Amendment … The only time that opioids became a crisis is when the addict was Todd from the suburbs and not Tasha from the hood. You cannot change something you are unwilling to confront. This is who we are.”

She later added, “History — past and present — is showing us we who are, who we have been, and denial does not save us. Now that we know who we are, can work toward who we want to be. This is the moment in time that we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and decide: Today is the day we quit racism and white supremacy.”

State Sen. Adam Gomez, D-Springfield, also spoke at the event. Gomez became the first Puerto Rican person elected to the Massachusetts Senate when he won the seat in November.

“I just want to really motivate everyone to say that yes, we dumped the Trump,” he said. “Yes, we’ve elected — on historic numbers — different people of color, including myself. But the work does not stop with the election. This had transpired after we elected president Barack Obama, where many of us checked out. Many of us thought that there was no more work for us to do.”

Gomez thanked the Resistance Center and its supporters for their work. “We’re living for people who are no longer with us,” Gomez said, “so we have to continue to carry that torch and be that light.”

The 37th annual event was “happening virtually for the first time ever,” said Miranda Groux, program director at the Resistance Center for Peace and Justice. “As we follow in King’s legacy,” she said, “we know we have mountains to move. It should not be controversial to simply assert, ‘Black lives matter.’”

Groux spoke about the center’s demilitarization campaign, which includes actions protesting L3 Harris in Northampton. “Few people are aware that one of the biggest weapons contractors in the world has a branch in Northampton,” Groux said.

The event also included drumming and singing from artist I-SHEA and songs from Kevin Sharpe, who played the piano while two singers behind him clapped and together they sang, “Ain’t gonna let no Jim Crow turn me around/I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’/Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.”

Though there was no sound of clapping in Edwards Church of Northampton as in past years’ events, participants still found ways to show their appreciation of the music. Some swayed to the music, others seemed to be singing along at home, and one person wiped away a tear as Sharpe played “We Shall Overcome.”

The convocation came after a digital tour of African American history in Florence led by Steve Strimer of the David Ruggles Center for History and Education. After the speeches and music, there were a number of workshops about a range of racial and social justice issues held over Zoom. Racial Equity and Learning in Northampton Public Schools (REAL), for example, held a workshop called “Visioning an Anti-Racist School District,” while Springfield No One Leaves held a workshop on the history of racist housing policies.

Greta Jochem can be reached at
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