OLEAN, NY – "Clap when you feel it and sing along," Christina Lopez, master of ceremonies, encouraged those congregated in First Presbyterian Church on Laurens Street Sunday afternoon.
The nearly 150 people who gathered for a celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responded by raising their hands and voices in "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
The African-American anthem with lyrics by James Weldon Johnson that include "Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast'ning rod" spoke to a theme resonating with those gathered for the event. Speakers recalled periods of civil unrest in the United States and noted that those battles fought by King, by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and by civil rights activists nationwide were, and are, far from over.
William "Bill" Clemons, a member of the Olean-based Gospel Choraliers, and Mike Marvin, a member of the celebration's organizing committee since its 1989 inaugural year, led a discussion focusing on the unending journey. The two laid out an anecdote-filled timeline spanning one of the first of King's boycotts to the most recent acts of civil disobedience carried out by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Marvin told the gathering how decades ago he witnessed firsthand the inconsistencies in the treatment of blacks and whites.
"On my 18th birthday, I was arrested for possession of a handgun," Marvin said. "At that time in New York State, there was a minimum one-year sentence for the crime. I was let off with only six months."
After serving his sentence, Marvin, who is white, went to college and met Alonzo, his roommate, an African-American who had been in jail.
“He hadn't done anything wrong—he was a straight-A student with recommendations from his teachers—but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Marvin said. “He was sentenced to five years in Attica State Prison."
Marvin described the ways in which injustice continued to present itself in different forms, citing the Supreme Court's June 2013 decision to strike down Section IV of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which freed nine states to change election laws without advance federal approval.
Marvin later quoted King: "Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war." And then Marvin listed the ways in which he believes the activist organization Black Lives Matter is connected to the battles fought by King.
"Like Martin Luther King Jr., Black Lives Matter sometimes uses civil disobedience to resist oppression," Marvin said. "And like the Civil Rights movements of the '50s and '60s, Black Lives Matter has been misrepresented by the media."
The celebration included musical performances from the Olean High School Choir, the Gospel Choraliers and the mime performance group Stars for Christ and a poetry reading by Ola Mae Gayton.
Gayton took the podium and spoke these words from "America the Beautiful":
"O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain." And she said, "The reflections of the African-American plight in ‘America the Beautiful’ honor Martin Luther King Jr. and all of those who were and still are out on the battlefield, fighting for liberty and justice for all."
Gayton went on to talk of those she described as the "do-nothing elected officials" who ensure impunity and who try to curtail the achievements of African-Americans. She cited president-elect Donald Trump as a man who has "put his finger on the feverish pulse of that population."
"We are clear witnesses to civilization's decline," Gayton concluded.
Beverly Twitty-Terrien, Ph.D., director of the Gospel Choraliers, spoke after Gayton and shared her belief that all hope was not lost.
"We're here to help the dream become a reality," Twitty-Terrien said. "It's a lot of hard work, and it's not over yet, but it can happen. Today, it did happen. We can thank God for that."
Clad in a purple suit, Gerald Slack Sr., superintendent of the Queen City District for the Pentecostal denomination, shared stories of the childhood he had growing up in New Orleans and gave an example of how times have changed for the better.
"I was in New Orleans with my family and when I went to Walmart, I almost cried," Slack said. "People will say, 'Well, why'd you almost cry?' It's because when I was little, I wasn't allowed to go on that side of town."
"Momma would say, 'Don't run! Don't run! Don't run! You may get shot,' " Slack continued. "We'd say, 'Why?' She'd say, 'We don't know why.' "
And Slack offered the ceremony's closing prayer.
After giving thanks to God and King through prayer, the congregation stood, clapped and swayed along as Clemons, the soloist in "So Good," sang and danced his praise to God and dedicated the song to the memory of those the congregation had lost in the past year.
The ceremony concluded with all members of the celebration encircling the sanctuary, their hands clasped in unity as they sang together "We Shall Overcome."
During the reception that followed, Clemons commented, "I am happy that we were able to have the celebration again this year, and I am even happier that we were able to fill the church."