Community unites for Martin Luther King Day celebration

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OCEAN CITY – Stirring a large pan filled with piping-hot collard greens, Portia Thompson smiled when she saw the long line of hungry people before her. She’d been in the cafeteria of Ocean City High School for hours; cooking for days before that.

She was tired, but she and her friend Mary Miles had a community to feed. There was no time for fatigue; the popular soul food dinner following the Martin Luther King Jr. Day service Saturday was in full swing. With the help of a small army of volunteers, the two women are the backbone of the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

Thompson was a college student at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960 when four of her black classmates sat down at a lunch counter at the local Woolworth’s.

They asked for service, she recalled, and were refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. It was a peaceful resistance, she noted, and almost 52 years later, it remains a life-changing moment she hasn’t forgotten.

“I was scared to death,” she said. “It was so scary. I was afraid that someone would get killed. I knew those students. They locked the campus down.”

The Woolworth’s “separate but not equal” sit-down challenged racial inequality throughout the South. The youth-led movement led to a six-month-long protest, inspiring hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches and members of the community to join. The passive resistance, Thompson said, ended with an integrated lunch counter.

King, the man behind the movement, ignited a generation, she said. Thompson and Miles will never forget the slain civil rights leader.

“So Mary and I are here because of Martin,” Thompson said. “We are here, black and white, sharing this wonderful meal because a man named Rev. Martin Luther King put his life at risk. He did that for us, for our children and grandchildren.

“We have all of this because of him,” she said. “We want our children and grandchildren to know who he was and what he did. He risked his life at every turn and he did that for us. It’s so important to me that we never forget that. We can never do enough for Martin. No, not for all he did for us. Each year we have to go back over it, tell the story again.”

The soul food dinner consisted of a delicious homemade variety of foods: fried chicken, collard greens, string beans, yams, potato salad, corn bread and macaroni and cheese.

Before the fellowship dinner, members of the community gathered in the high school auditorium for a celebration that featured a rousing rendition of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, performed by Rev. Gregory Johnson. The program featured remarks by local officials and a performance by the Levities, a musical group. At the end of the celebration, the audience held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Miles, who grew up in racially-segregated South Carolina, remembers a time when such a scene would have been impossible.

“It was not easy, not in my time,” she said. “I remember the day that Martin gave that speech, ‘I Have a Dream.’ I can remember it vividly; it had such an impact on me. When he said he had a dream, well, I said to myself, ‘Mary, you have to have a dream, too, whatever it is.’ He inspired me. I really believed I could have a dream.”

“This is a wonderful thing,” Miles said. “I enjoy doing this for my community and it’s a wonderful day of fellowship, but for us, it’s really a ‘thank you’ for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He did so much for us. We need to show the young people he thought about us, about the future generations, never himself. We have to think about that with the youth coming up. If we don’t keep telling this story, how are they going to learn it?”

Johnson is Miles’ stepson. She said he gave her chills as he invoked King.

“He does it better every year,” she said. “It was awesome. He looked and sounded just like Martin. He does so much for the community, just like Martin. He’s one of a kind. We need more people to try to continue Martin’s work.”

Winnie Piriano spent most of her afternoon in the kitchen, stirring, serving, scrubbing and, best of all, enjoying the camaraderie. Piriano, the owner of South Jersey Home Health Care on Asbury Avenue, was presented with a community service award two years ago at the celebration. This year, she greeted attendees as they entered the auditorium.

“I thought this was the best we ever had,” she said. “It was a pleasure to be here today. It’s always fun. I enjoy serving. People are so happy to get out, be together. It’s such a nice community event.”

The dinner was spearheaded by City Councilman Keith Hartzell two years ago. Looking to encourage more people to attend the ceremony, Hartzell figured the hot meal and shared culture would help.

Shiloh Baptist Church, Macedonia United Methodist Church and St. James AME Church combine forces, and, with the help of city officials, serve hundreds.

Nelson Dice, who clapped along during the singing of “Amazing Grace” and waved his arm in the air along with the choir during the group’s second song, said he wouldn’t miss it. A member of both Macedonia United Methodist Church and St. Peter’s United Methodist Church, Dice said the fellowship dinner is important.

“Everyone is here together,” he said. “It’s a non-segregated event and I enjoy that. It’s really a wonderful event.”

Despite the efforts of King – a peacemaker, Baptist minister and courageous leader – Dice said there is still some prejudice and segregation in the community.

“I belong to two churches for a reason,” he said. “One of the reasons I do that is to desegregate one of the most segregated hours of the week. Think about it: on Sunday morning, people go to the black church or the white church. I go to both.”

Dice said his attendance at Macedonia has led to some worshippers attending St. Peter’s and vice-versa.

“It makes me very happy to see that,” he said. “We should share our culture, worship together. I hope to inspire more people to do that.”

King’s mission, Dice noted, was to inspire and bring hope.

“I think we were able to accomplish that today,” he said. “The celebration was uplifting and this dinner was delicious, I look forward to it every year. It’s a place to break bread, as the one body of Christ. It makes it very special.”


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