Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Breakfast, MV-NAACP

Several hundred people gathered yesterday at the Wyndham Hotel in Andover, Mass., for the  Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast sponsored by the Merrimack Valley Branch of the NAACP. Branch President Rev. Roger A. Sawtelle of Lowell said one of the things he enjoys about the yearly gathering is that people from up and down the river valley come together, which does not happen as much as it should.

The theme of the day was “Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community?”—which is taken directly from a book of the same title by Rev. Dr. King, published in 1967, a year before he was killed. The book is a commentary on the then-contemporary American situtation with his thoughts on civil rights, economic justice, and political action. Keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond of Boston issued a call for personal action, asking each person in the audience to turn to the person next to him or her and ask three questions: What am I willing to do? What are you willing to do? What are we willing to do?

Rev. Hammond is a minister and surgeon, who grew up in Philadelphia and earned degrees at Harvard. He is the pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. He is Chairman and co-founder of the Ten Point Coalition ecumenical and lay leadership group working with high-risk youth in Boston.

Rev. Hammond quoted from James Russell Lowell’s poem “The Present Crisis” (1844): “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—/Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,/ Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

Urging a life of service, Rev. Hammond also quoted the late US. Rep. Shirley Chisolm, who was known to say, “Service to others is the rent you pay for being on the planet.”

There was a strong political current to the remarks. Rev. Sawtelle’s printed and spoken words challenged the Tea Party activists to purge their movement of blatant racists whom he said are using the cover of a grassroots political movement to promote their hateful ideas. Before the program got underway MV-NAACP volunteers passed out copies of a news release from the New England NAACP condemning Maine Governor Paul LePage for saying the NAACP can “kiss my butt” after hearing criticism of his decision not to attend planned MLK Jr. holiday activities. (He did go to a local event, after all, but did not offer remarks, according to media reports.)

The MV-NAACP’s late vice president William “Bill” Torrence, Sr., received the Samuel E. Crayton Award for Community Leadership. Many in Lowell will remember his years of volunteering at the Lowell Folk Festival, where he organized the Soul Food Booth, specializing in bbq ribs, fried chicken, and sweet potato pie. He was vice president for 20 years. His wife and family received the award.

A surprise of the morning for me was the powerful invocation and benediction by Rev. Dannie Mae James Green of the Bethel A.M.E. Church on Grand Street in Lowell. She lifted up the audience with her call for us to find our better angels and follow them—and moved the assembly deeply with her emotional closing call for parents to protect their children and all children from those who would bring violence to our streets and into our homes.

Be a drum major for justice, said Rev. Dr. King.