Martin Luther King still shows the way

Ralph Stewart

The theme of the annual Martha’s Vineyard NAACP membership and award brunch this year was “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Barack Obama” and the emphasis was on continuing the fight for civil rights and individual freedom. The local chapter chose to focus the event – held each year on Martin Luther King Day and dedicated to him – on the youth of the Island in an effort to ensure the organization’s future.

Braving Monday’s blustery weather, approximately 100 people attended the sold-out affair, packing Deon’s Restaurant in Oak Bluffs. A jovial, multiracial group visibly enjoyed the camaraderie, uplifting speeches, music, and fabulous food.

The memorial event opened up with M.V. NAACP president Laurie Perry-Henry delivering the greeting and opening speech. She started out by calling 2009 a year of victories, but went on to caution against complacency, referencing Dr. King’s phrase “the fierce urgency of now” followed by a quote from Barack Obama, “There is such a thing as being too late and that hour is almost upon us.”

Ms. Perry-Henry urged the assembled to donate to relief efforts in Haiti and offered up thoughts and prayers to those affected by the recent tragedy.

The NAACP president used the occasion to officially announce a renewed partnership with Island Affordable Housing (IAH), which will involve a commitment to relieve IAH’s debt accrued by the Bradley Square Project.

After Pastor Marcia Buckley of the Apostolic House of Prayer offered up the invocation and prayer, brunch was served. House specialties included jerk chicken and grouper with a Trinidad curry, as well as rice and beans, plantains, and traditional breakfast items.

The second part of the program was turned over to students of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Elaine Cawley-Weintraub, teacher and founder of the African-American Heritage Trail project, introduced the afternoon’s two speakers, Randall Jette and Troy Small.

In an address called “What Martin Luther King, Jr. Means to Me,” Mr. Jette talked about how he has had limited exposure to race issues, thanks to the barriers that have been broken by others. In calling the civil rights struggle a team effort, he referred to Dr. King as the “most valuable player” of the movement. His speech, delivered with humor and humility, was original and nicely personal.

Senior Troy Small spoke about his research on Sen. Edward Brooke, whose home in Oak Bluffs is on the African American Heritage Trail. Mr. Small related his reflections on both Senator Brooke and Dr. King and how their efforts have helped shape his world. He quoted Dr. King’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and finished by saying, “It’s not yet the promised land, but I stand before you today, as a young African American man who has lived what Martin Luther King dreamed about.”

Following the guest speakers, four students – Toby Riseborough, Amanda Rose, Rykker Maynard, and Jenna Lambert – performed two a cappella songs. “Run, Mary, Run,” an African-American spiritual, was followed by “Lift Every Heart,” the anthem that is traditionally sung at NAACP gatherings.

Lorna Andrade, co-chair of the event then made the presentations to this year’s recipients of the NAACPs Certificate of Merit. Wampanoag tribal leader Tobias Vanderhoop and the Reverend Roger Spinney of both the Baptist Church of Vineyard Haven and the Gay Head Church were on hand to receive their awards, while Constance Messmer accepted on behalf of her husband Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig’s Market. Ms. Andrade announced that the recipients were honored this year for their dedication to working with young people on the Island.

The brunch, which ran just under two hours, was completed with closing remarks by Ms. Perry-Henry. After reminding the audience to vote on Tuesday, she urged individual involvement in NAACP committees. Ms. Perry-Henry then finished with an eloquent plea. Following up on the theme of continuing the work of Dr. King and others, she said, “There must be a commitment to act beyond the holiday. Rather than celebrate, you should imitate Dr. King. Rather than a day off – it should be a day on.”

Gwyn McAllister is a frequent contributor to The Times.