Editorial: King’s work carried on by countless others
On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, much attention has been paid to the work and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Obscured, perhaps, by the focus on King’s enormous legacy is the smaller, quieter impact of hundreds of civil rights activists across the country and across the decades who have advanced freedom for all Americans. Even in tiny New Hampshire, that list is long. Among its members:
∎ Jonathan Daniels, the only New Hampshireman killed during the civil rights movement in the South. Daniels had gone to Alabama to register voters. He was shot down by an angry white man, taking the bullet intended for a black teenager.
∎ Valerie Cunningham, founder of the Portsmouth Black History Trail. What sounds like a modest stop for school field trips and tourists is, in fact, a powerful jolt to a certain brand of New England smugness. The trail reminds us that yes, even here, there was slavery and marginalization of African-Americans – and, later, established communities and institutions. To appreciate the history of New Hampshire, we must know the history of all its residents.
∎ Gene Robinson, former Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. As his church’s first openly gay bishop, he became a lightning rod for controversy, a symbol of resilience and a role model for gay youth around the world.
∎ Marilla Ricker, an advocate for women’s suffrage at the turn of the last century. She tried unsuccessfully to run for governor before women had the vote, paving the way for others, including Gov. Maggie Hassan and the state’s entirely female congressional delegation.
∎ Arnie Alpert and the many others who spent years urging this state to support the holiday honored by 49 others: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In 1999, New Hampshire became the 50th. Recalling the struggle for the state holiday itself has become part of the annual commemoration of King’s message.
∎ Freda Smith, who fought for the rights of her own disabled daughter and others like her to live as independently as possible. Her activism led to freer lives for the former residents of the Laconia State School.
∎ Jim Splaine and the many others whose steady work advancing the rights of gays and lesbians in New Hampshire led, remarkably, to one of the nation’s first gay marriage statutes.
∎ Judge Hugh Bownes, whose federal courtroom in the 1970s was abuzz with many of the greatest struggles of the day. He sided with an accused communist sympathizer, conscientious objectors to the war in Vietnam, women seeking abortions, welfare mothers and state prison inmates. If there was a common theme in his rulings it was this: the advancement of civil rights in the broadest sense of the word.
∎ Dr. Mahboubul Hassan, founder of the Islamic Society of Greater Manchester. Hassan provided leadership and advocacy for the state’s small Muslim community, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks and as his community sought to establish its first mosque. In a King Day speech, Hassan once said, “Like Dr. King, I also have a dream: One day all my Muslim brothers and sisters will not be judged by their religion, except by piety and good action. . . .”
∎ Linda Gathright, cofounder of the Southern New Hampshire Outreach for Black Unity and of the Greater Nashua NAACP chapter. Gathright has been a longtime advocate of a scholarship fund for African-Americans, expanding the horizons of local students the old-fashioned way: through education.
∎ Arthur Hilson, minister of the New Hope Baptist Church in Portsmouth. A powerful orator on the issues important to King, Hilson cautions his congregation not to overlook the full meaning of King’s “Dream” speech, specifically issues of economic justice. In a 2007 King Day speech, he noted: “If we are going to achieve freedom, this country’s going to need a heart transplant.”
This list is far from complete, of course, just a reminder that the civil rights movement best exemplified by King is broad and deep – and that the work is not yet done.