There was a cold wind blowing outside the Holy Family church in Union City last week, but a warm glow flowed through the assembled crowd of a 100 or so people who came to celebrate the life and birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
King, the charismatic lynchpin of the 1960s civil rights movement, would have been 75 years old this year had he not been cut down by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968.
Arranged by the Union City Board of Commissioners, the event was a success, according to attendants, despite the frigid weather. Those who ventured out were treated to almost two hours of heartfelt speeches and singing that had many of the attendees wiping tears from their eyes.
The ceremony was attended by Union City Commissioners Tilo Rivas and Christopher Irizarry as well as Union City spokesperson Gale Kaufman, who said of the ceremony, “It was amazing. It was an inspirational evening.”
Other guests at the event included the McDonald’s New York Metro Gospel Choir, led by Matthew Kirkwood as well as actor J. Emerson McGowan and local poet Gerard Karabin.
McGowan recited King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and Karabin recited Robert F. Kennedy’s speech, “The Statement on the Assassination of Martin Luther King.”
Also included in the program was the announcement of the winners of an essay contest where local school children were asked to write about the life and times of King.
First up in the program was the McDonald’s New York Metro Gospel Choir, a Newark-based group who dazzled the assembled crowd with inspirational music. Attendees could close their eyes and imagine being transported back to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached, in Atlanta, Ga. in the 1960s.
Said Union City Commissioner Christopher Irizarry of the choir, “It was beautiful. This was one of the most beautiful events I have ever attended. The choir was fantastic. The energy level from the people that were there was amazing. Next year, we are definitely going to have them back.” Added Irizarry, “Also next year, we plan to publicize the event better, so more people get to experience it.”
Matthew Kirkwood of the McDonald’s New York Metro Gospel Choir commented on the event in a telephone interview last week. Said Kirkwood, “It was a very important event because it is a great celebration of a great man. We really enjoyed ourselves and we would love to be back next year. We really love ministering to people and making them feel good.”
Local poet Gerard Karabin, who said the event “was beautiful and moving,” recited Robert F. Kennedy’s speech delivered the night King was killed. The speech, called “Statement on the Assassination of Martin Luther King,” read in part, “…we can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization – black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”
Said Karabin after the event, “You could hear a pin drop.”
After Karabin’s recitation of the Kennedy statement, the winners of a citywide essay contest were announced. The students were asked to write about what they knew of King, what they had been taught, and most importantly, how they felt about the man who had so much to do with changing the country.
The winners were Angelica Ortiz from the Thomas Edison School, Joseph Kanik of Union Hill High School, Vanessa Trinidad of the Thomas Edison School, Madai Garcia, Ivanna Alvarado, and Angie Cisneros, all of the Robert Waters School. Ortiz, who won first prize, was awarded $250, and the second and third place winners all received $100 to $150.
As the finale to the event, King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, was read by accomplished professional actor J. Emerson McGowan. McGowan has been featured in film and television shows such as Chapelle’s Show on Comedy Central and in the 1997 movie “Fallen” which starred Denzel Washington and John Goodman.
Reciting the speech, said McGowan, is something he has done before.
“I have read the speech before,” said the New York City-based McGowan. “It was an honor for me to be there. It was especially important because this was the first annual celebration in Union City. It was long overdue.”
Added McGowan, “The speech itself resonates within me, and I try to remind people of what it means in my own life. I live in an ‘inner city’ area so to speak, but I try to get across to those who live around me that respect is important and I show it to them. And more often than not, they show it back. That is King’s legacy.”