Town celebrates Dr. King’s legacy with songs, spirit

Fifty years after the fatal shot rang out in Memphis — and 1,000 miles from Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, where civil rights protesters faced snarling police dogs, water cannons and officers with truncheons — people in Ridgefield, Conn., celebrated the life and work of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a fighter for freedom, voice of the downtrodden, and advocate for peace.

A crowd approaching 200 gathered at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Monday, Jan. 15, to honor the slain civil rights leader’s legacy with words and music, as has been the tradition in Ridgefield for two decades.

This was a little different, however.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi acknowledged that Ridgefield had seen half a dozen acts of bigoted, racist or anti-Semitic graffiti in the last year.

“I would like to be able to say that our community, Ridgefield, has renounced the word racism, but we have not,” Marconi said. “I would like to be able to say that our community, Ridgefield, has unlearned the word bigotry, but we have not. …

“Recent occurrences in our community — swastikas and racial slurs — have led me to believe that although the majority of RIdgefield shares compassion and respect for all races and religions, there are a few who do not. And today I beg, I plead with you: Help,” he said.

“We have seen here in Ridgefield the physical evidence of racism and bigotry, and we can no longer tolerate these acts.

“We have begun our work with the ADL, the clergy association, our schools, and our government within our community to foster a village of acceptance and tolerance. But it is just the beginning.

“We must further educate our citizens, both young and old, that Ridgefield is and will continue to be a community that rejects racism, a community that rejects bigotry, a community that rejects hatred and contempt toward others.”

Service award

To SPHERE President Lori Berisford, who received the Spirit of Dr. King Ridgefield Community Service Award, Marconi said, “Lori, your dedication to others through your SPHERE leadership, and the many other organizations that both you and John support, demonstrates to our community how love and support, comfort and warmth, can bring such happiness to so many. For these extraordinary acts of kindness, you truly inspire all of us.”

“I like to give awards, not get them,” Berisford said, in accepting the honor.

Clearly moved, she thanked a litany of supporters, from her husband, John, and daughters, Lane and Liza, to “my friends from SPHERE, who will never be forgotten or left behind.”

‘One voice’

Mark Robinson, the principal founder of Ridgefield’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration, reminded the gathering that “one voice” raised against injustice can spark change.

He spoke of the women now speaking out against harassment they’d long suffered in silence.

“This year, Time magazine’s person of the year is the ‘Silence Breakers’ — the women who spoke up and spoke out and launched a movement that has hit our collective culture like a Serena Williams backhand,” Robinson said. “And because of the Silence Breakers, the ‘open secret’ of harassment and victimization has been broken. ‘Time’s up’ has become a battle cry of women across the country. A powerful movement for dignity and equality for women has been energized by the shared refrain ‘Me too.’

“There are times when being part of a group or organization, a political party or even a church can bring critical mass and collective power to our efforts. There are times when our unity is our strength. But every collective effort starts with individual effort. Every chorus begins with one voice.

“Each of us faces moments in our lives where destiny may ask us to be that one voice. I know it is not an easy thing, but I ask you to remember, you are not alone,” Robinson said. “You are simply first. …

“So I ask you, I ask all of us, if we are going to celebrate this holiday, if we are going to acknowledge these important anniversaries, let us please honor what they stood for. Let us honor their meaning and their purpose. Let us honor more than Dr. King’s birthday. Let us honor Dr. King’s life.”

A Better Chance

Two students from Ridgefield’s A Better Chance program, who live in the “ABC House” and attend Ridgefield High School, read Hey Black Child, a poem by Useni Eugene Perkins.

The poem ends:

“Hey Black Child,

“Be what you can be

“Learn what you must learn

“Do what you can do

“And tomorrow your nation will be what you want it to be.”

The opening invocation was by the Rev. Whitney Altopp of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the closing benediction was by the Rev. Bill Pfohl of Jesse Lee Memorial United Methodist Church.

Musical contributions to the celebration included SPHERE members singing Nothing More; Broadway professionals Daniel C. Levine, Bryan Perri and Katie Diamond, who are leading ACT of Connecticut in the renovation of the theater on the town Schlumberger property, performing Our Time; the Ridgefield Chorale, led Daniela Sikora, winner of last year’s Spirit of Dr. King Award, singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; and the rock-jazz fusion band Project Grand Slam, which played three songs and led in the closing finale, with all the performers on stage, singing a medley that began with We Shall Overcome and ended with Lean on Me.