A crowd gathered in the West Hartford Town Hall Auditorium Monday morning for the town's 17th annual celebration of the life of .
Adults as well as children who had vacation days in honor of the late Dr. King's birthday mingled with town officials, heard music performed by local school groups including the Hall Jazz Combo, and listened to impassioned speeches by students and community leaders.
State officials, including Attorney General George Jepsen, Secretary of State Denise Merrill, and West Hartford legislators Sen. Beth Bye and Reps. Brian Becker and Joe Verrengia, were also in attendance.
"I feel compelled to note the beautiful juxtaposition of today's ceremony, that we are celebrating the life of Martin Luther King in the morning on the same day that our first African American president is inaugurated for his second term," said West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka as he welcomed attendees.
NBC Connecticut's Todd Piro, standing in for West Hartford resident and fellow anchor Brad Drazen who has the flu, served as Master of Ceremonies.
Rabbi Michael Pincus of Congregation Beth Israel provided the invocation, praying for the "strength, determination, and willpower" that will make our world safe.
A major highlight of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration is always the student perspectives provided by Conard and Hall high school students selected by a team of social studies teachers. This year, Conard junior Billie Jefferson and Hall sophomore Stacy-Ann Wallen were given the honor of speaking at the ceremony.
"Forty years ago I wouldn't be standing here today as an African American, but as Negro, 40 years ago my water fountain wouldn't have been the same as yours," said Jefferson, whose perspective was written as a tribute to her late mother.
Jefferson's mother, who fostered more than 200 children, many of whom came from difficult backgrounds, passed away in 2007, but not before she passed along to her daughter many of the lessons found in King's powerful words, that "kept her blessed and moving forward."
"'American' is not a race but a nationality, of one nation, regardless if you're white, black, Spanish, or Chinese," said Jefferson.
"Because of another man's bravery and his love for his people, I attend Conard High School going into my senior year headstrong," said Jefferson.
"Martin Luther King will never die in vain for he is still marching with me," she said.
Wallen also spoke of King's dream, and how his legacy as "the father of civil rights" has become a reality for her.
"I have the opportunity to attend a school that doesn't segregate me and my peers because of my skin color. I am able to ride on a school bus, sit in the same classroom, eat at the same table, and do the same activities as my white counterparts," she said.
Wallen also noted King's encouragement of non-violent solutions as a way to solve problems. Referencing the tragic events six weeks ago in Sandy Hook, Wallen said that it is "sad and unacceptable that our schools have become targets of violence."
"If Dr. King was alive today, he would not be pleased about the violence taking place in our world, especially in our schools," she said. She believes he would have traveled throughout the country, encouraging non-violence.
Following a vocal performance of "If Ye Love Me" by the King Philip Singers, Natalie Mendes of the West Hartford African American Social and Cultural Organization introduced keynote speaker Dr. Stacey K. Close.
Close, a professor of African American History who is also Interim Associate Vice President for Equity and Diversity at Eastern Connecticut State University, spoke of Dr. King's ties to Connecticut and how his time here, including work in Connecticut's tobacco fields in the 1940s, had a profound impact and transformative effect.
Although the pursuit of civil rights may have been King's most remembered contribution, Close said that in later years his concerns spread to economics and housing. "These were the issues that were utmost in his mind in the last years, not just justice," Close said.
King called for a "massive, massive march" of poor people, said Close, and when he was killed by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968, "while it struck down Dr. King, it did not strike down his legacy."
"He left us with a message of dignity, he left us with a message of hope, he left us with a message of caring for the poor, he left us with a message of encouraging young people to seek and embrace education," Close said.
Conard's award winning a capella group, Be S#arp, closed the celebration with a touching and beautiful rendition of "We Shall Overcome."