Wednesday, January 16, 2013

...Or Perish as Fools

Monday is a federal holiday, the observance of the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King,  Jr. Schools and government operations are closed as communities across the country join hands and hearts, if only for a moment, to celebrate his life and to consider our progress as a nation in our ongoing journey for equal rights.

This year, perhaps as much a coincidence of the calendar as a possible portent, Monday also marks the inauguration of Barack Obama and his second term as President of the United States. Perhaps, but I don't think so....

Norwich 2013 is about 360 miles away from our nation's capital but as we saw Tuesday, the first of January and the first day of the New Year, in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Norwich, home to David Ruggles a leading abolitionist and a conductor of the Underground Railroad, was closer politically and emotionally to Washington D. C. than perhaps anywhere else in the United States at that moment.. It's only been in relatively recent years that historians have started to examine Ruglles' life in greater detail and are still learning about his role in so many critical moments in the anti-slavery movement.

One of the places I've always enjoyed walking past is the Vernet-Lee House at 118 Washington Street, which, according to some accounts, had a tunnel in its basement leading to the Yantic River less than half a mile away to help speed liberated Southern slaves to the Port of New London on the mouth of the Thames and from there, north to Canada and freedom.

The Norwich of a century and half ago was a city of doers, with a rich ethnic diversity even then as waves of immigrants took their turns, so to speak, in the mills and factories built on the banks of the three rivers which helped define the city's boundaries and character.

Thamesville, Taftville and Greeneville together with Bean Hill, Laurel Hill and the farmlands to the east and northwest of the city all offered opportunity to newcomers and established settlers alike and Norwich thrived because of who we were and what we made of ourselves in the moments we claimed for our own. It wasn't the first time, I suspect, that we realized we had more in common than those individual items that separated us one from the other.  It's a history and  a heritage we would do well to remember Monday as we honor the 84th birthday of Dr. King.

As a child of the sixties, who came of age when Dr. King preached and taught and shaped every discussion about equal rights and human rights, believing as he did that one was always the other, I was often speechless at the depth of his belief and eloquence of his vision that resisted the existence and pervasiveness of poverty and despair that was destroying this country. Reinventing American society so that the his children together with mine and yours would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" is a part of the legacy of  Dr. King's life and a part of our nation's history.

So, when you can on Monday, find the time to take part in the ceremonies and commemorations. Ours in Norwich is usually in the early afternoon, and starts at City Hall. There's some speeches (not too many) and some preaching (I don't think Dr. King would mind the competition) and warming words on what is usually a typical New England winter's day. Then we go home to the lives we lead and the people we are.

I hope this year we can seize the moment to celebrate the dream of Dr. King and make it our own.  And then, every day for all the days that remain, use its promise to change the world. Again.
-bill kenny 

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