On what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 89th birthday, NAACP members of all ages and backgrounds filled the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs for their annual membership luncheon.
Although there were 113 members on the list, around 125 people turned out for the event, including some who didn’t RSVP, as NAACP Martha’s Vineyard president Erik Blake joked to the crowd in his opening remarks. This annual luncheon on Martin Luther King Day is when NAACP members renew their membership, and it’s also an opportunity to reflect, together, on the life and accomplishments of the leader of the civil rights movement.
“I try to encourage everyone to get involved,” Mr. Blake said about the opportunity the annual luncheon provides. “You can’t just be a card-carrying member.”
Without an empty seat in the room, Mr. Blake began by asking everyone to remember the lives of community members recently lost, specifically the tragic loss of Jake Baird, as well as Tony Lombardi, who was previously honored by the NAACP for his community service work. Jacqueline Hunt, chairman of the religious affairs committee, then led an opening prayer as a way to celebrate the life of Dr. King, who “gave his life for peace, tranquility, and equality for all men.”
The afternoon continued with lunch, served by board members and Erik Blake’s wife, Catie, and daughter Addison, 9. “We have fed your bodies,” luncheon committee organizer Gretchen Tucker-Underwood said; “now we’re going to feed your souls.”
Ms. Tucker-Underwood then played an emotional audio recording of Walter Cronkite’s news report from the day Dr. King was assassinated on March 29, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. The room fell into silence as the voice echoed harrowing words most members remember hearing 50 years ago. “I’ve listened to this tape many times,” Ms. Tucker-Underwood said after the recording was over. “It reminds me why it’s so important to continue his dream.”
“Everyone says that [Dr. King] was killed,” Mr. Blake told members. “‘Killed’ implies he was hit by a bus. The man was murdered.”
It was the 10th anniversary of Dr. King’s death when Mr. Blake, who was 10 years old at the time, first remembers learning about him. “I didn’t get it,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why someone would murder someone over pigmentation in their skin. It’s still a foreign thought to me.”
“Being born a white man, especially, I had to step up. It’s fact,” Mr. Blake said. “My feeling is: Don’t feel guilty about that — use it. Use it to influence people to make sure it’s a better world.”
In such a challenging political climate, the NAACP has stuck to its foundation, and remains a nonpartisan organization. “We need to remain vigilant, however,” Mr. Blake said. “Everything from voter rights, to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program [DACA], whatever your political side is — you should always bear on what’s right.”
Other notable members of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP spoke about their experiences and reflections. Marie Allen, Arthur Doubleday, Herb Foster, Bob Hayden, Dolores Littles, and William McLaurin all gave powerful speeches.
Alison B. Frazier-Hayden, worship leader at Vineyard Assembly of God, closed the event leading the group in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by James Weldon Johnson. The song, written as a poem in 1900, is referred to as the “Black American national anthem.” Ms. Tucker-Underwood asked each member to go home and reflect on the words of the song, alone. “This is the NAACP’s anthem, but it should be America’s national anthem, too,” she said.
Marie Allen closed the event by saying, “You might be thinking what Dr. King would say today if he were here. I think he would urge us to continue to dedicate ourselves to advocate [against] judicial and economic inconsistencies, hate crimes in every form, and of course, he would not be pleased with the current affairs in our country. So, God bless, and love to you all.”