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Martin Luther King Junior Celebration

A Report by Meredith Shanoksi '16

MLK Day 2014
The celebration at Edwards Church involved the children of Northampton .

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day that encourages our society to consider, converse, and ultimately take action in remembrance of the civil rights advocate, Dr. King and the legacy he created within our country and worldwide. The day underlines the importance of restorative justice within our society and reminds us of the ongoing struggle for freedom in our world. The day marked the 30th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, as the public holiday was signed into law by president Ronald Reagan in 1983.

This year’s theme at Edwards Church was The Ongoing Struggle for Freedom and Prison Justice. The convocation began with an introduction that highlighted King’s steadfast faith and pledge to service and justice through nonviolence. On March 3rd, 1968, a month before he was killed, King delivered a speech at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia that spoke to “Unfulfilled Dreams.” Reverend Janet C. Bush recalled the speech: “One of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. We are commanded to do that. And so we, like David, find ourselves in so many instances having to face the fact that our dreams are not fulfilled.” She concluded that what King wished for—the worth and dignity of every person—has not arrived yet; that we must still propel ourselves to change our community and honor the dignity of every human being.

After Bush’s remarks, Reverend Matilda Cantwell, of Smith’s very own Center for Religious and Spiritual Life led a storytelling of “Liberty and Justice for All” which effectively involved the children of the congregation while reminding of the history and significance of the role that the children played in the manifestations of nonviolence protest of 1960’s Birmingham, Alabama. Cantwell gracefully told of the hardships of the past while reframing the pledge that Americans know so well: We pledge allegiance to peace, of the communities of the world. And to the freedom for which we stand, one world indivisible, for unity and justice for all people.”

The following section of the program was dedicated to prison justice and featured speakers representing three related organizations. Steve O’Neil, representing Jobs Not Jails, an organization striving to end massive incarceration and to divert resources from prisons into creative job creation, spoke of the injustice that ran rampant in the criminal justice system of the United States. O’Neil shared that the United States was the most incarcerating nation in the world, jailing five times as many individuals as the world average, a shocking statistic. He went on to explain the “new Jim Crow” trend that has resulted in massive incarceration in our nation. African Americans make up only 12% of the population that uses drugs, but 37% of those arrested for drug-related crime. Further, a disproportionate amount of African Americans are charged with drug related crimes with 54% of those who are convicted and 73% of those who are incarcerated. O’Neil also spoke about the difficulties of acclimating to life after prison, as many jobs that formerly rely on physical labor are being replaced with mechanized solutions, the opportunities for work for the increasing population of formerly incarcerated people are diminishing. He concluded that instead of the community working together to raise food for food banks, we should strive to eliminate the need for food banks altogether.

Two representatives for Tranzmission (an organization new to the Pioneer Valley), Tucker Marvin and Bender Bear, spoke next, explaining the goal of their organization. Their mission is twofold: 1) To prevent the incarceration of LGBTQ people by creating events and trans-spaces for and by LGBTQ people 2) to support the trans population that has already been incarcerated through sending free books to jails, providing trans inmates with pen-pal services, finding LGBTQ-friendly legal services, providing “trans-101” and “incarcerated realities” workshops within communities. The organization is based on trans-solidarity because queer and trans communities are particularly at risk for homelessness, incarceration and abuse within jail.

Finally, Cyndi Cail shared her personal story of imprisonment and coping after prison, which was perhaps the most moving part of the celebration. Cail read a poem that she had written through the organization Voices from the Inside, outlining her experience of childhood sexual and emotional abuse, which led to a decade of being homelessness and incarceration. She shared that after finding the organization, she began to write her story, and through writing, began coping with her experiences. “I struck gold, in finding my soul,” she explained. Writing gave her satisfaction and self-esteem. Cail underlined that abuse ended in jail for many, but that crocheting, reading, writing and other programs helped to rebuild lives, rather than the prison system itself.

To conclude the Dr. Martin Luther King Day convocation, Matilda Cantwell added a reflection, which highlighted the idea of a system of restorative justice through reflection instead of a system of justice based in retribution. Altogether, the celebration remembered King’s steadfast faith and noble insistence on non-violent practice, but also opened a conversation focusing on different aspects of prison justice (or injustice). All in all, the speakers considered both Dr. King’s legacy and also what his message means today’s world, and how our community in the Valley can take steps to change the injustice that still abounds.