LMACS Students Participate in MLK Jr. Event

Community members across Lowell line up to read from the...

LOWELL — From the confinement of a jail cell, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. captured the state of civil rights and his nonviolent commitment to equality. Exactly 60 years later, his words continue to resonate with Black Americans and the community at large.

Sunday marked the 60th anniversary of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” an open letter he penned after his arrest for nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963. Community members across local organizations, committees and universities read portions of the letter aloud at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church Hall to honor that history Sunday afternoon.

The reading and subsequent discussion were hosted by the Living the Dream Partners, a collection of agencies committed to recognizing King’s impact and spreading his mission through their own work.

Co-organizer Justin Ford, a ​​civic engagement coordinator at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, said King’s written words are still “powerful” for their relatability.

“I feel like it sparks a lot of emotion out of you,” Ford said, “because it directly talks about the challenges and struggles.”

King’s letter was a response to another open letter, “A Call for Unity,” authored by white religious leaders in the South. Their letter drew skepticism over King and his demonstrations, prompting King to form a response reiterating his mission to address inequity, recounting the racism enduring by Black Americans during segregation and reasoning why they are “moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.”

During the event, Ford read a passage in which King replies to complaints that the sit-ins and marches aren’t well-timed, or that those seeking civil rights must wait.

“We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights,” King wrote. “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”

The letter acknowledges the need for freedom, his Christian-based motives and methods, the historical failures to correct racist law and policy and the “painful experience” to demand action. It is also the source of the oft-quoted line: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

While King and his colleagues paved the way for current generations, there’s still more progress to be made, said Darcy Orellana, executive director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Middlesex Community College. Much of what was happening in the 1960s “rings true today,” she added.

“That letter is just as poignant today, nationally and state and locally, as it was 60 years ago,” Orellana said. “So for me, it requires me to continue to be self-reflective and continue to engage in both professional and personal work.

Other speakers include MCC President Phil Sisson, CMAA Executive Director Sothea Chiemruom, UMass Lowell Associate Dean of Student Affairs in Health and Wellness Paulette Renault-Caragianes and School Committee member Stacey Thompson, who read the final segment of King’s letter before leading a group reflection.

Even after the reading concluded, Thompson said King’s message left her emotional, which is emblematic of its resonance. Thompson urged attendees to “think about where we are now” and how the letter services the current day.

Both Thompson and Ford discussed the need for citywide collaboration, as well as King’s state while writing the letter — he was incarcerated and desperately needed to share his voice by written word. On theme with the letter, Thompson also differentiated between diversity and equity and warned of the dangers with conflating the two.

“Clearly, anybody who can see knows that Lowell is diverse. If you go on Merrimack Street, you can eat every food from every country, so that diversity itself just means many,” Thompson said. “We have to be careful about throwing that word around, because it’s easy, but it’s also lazy. It’s a lazy way of looking at policy and movement. It’s about equity. Now, equity is an entirely separate piece because equity relies on sharing power.”

Marianela Rivera, executive director of the Latino educational nonprofit Fortaleza, Inc., said she “could empathize with (King’s) frustration, challenging the status quo” while the letter was read. There are “deep connections” between then and now, she added.

“We’re still in the same fight,” Rivera said, “so it’s a letter that inspires me.”

The Living the Dream Partners, established in 2018, work alongside Girls Inc. of Greater Lowell, the Lowell Community Health Center, UMass Lowell and the African Community Center of Lowell, among other entities. The group commemorated MLK Jr. Day in January with MCC, their fiscal partner.

Lura Smith, a longtime advocate and organizer in Lowell and former assistant to the president at MCC, recalled a time when she couldn’t exist in the same room as other attendees or even “look you in the eyes.” While things are different, Smith said conversations need to turn into action, and it takes everyone to do so.

“There was a time that I was called ‘that little Negro girl,’” Smith said. “Now, I’m Ms. Lura. I’m Ms. Smith. But I am a human being like everybody else.”