Judy Gill spoke of the impact Martin Luther King Jr. had on integrating schools in her home state of Virginia during a celebration of King’s life at the Community Church of New Boston Sunday morning.
“I never went to schools that were integrated. I always went to segregated schools,” she said of attending Black schools. “My children went to integrated schools, but not me.”
On May 17, 1957, King delivered a famous speech titled, “Give Us the Ballot” in Washington, D.C. on the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional.
Some states, including Virginia, fought against desegregation, Gill said. She now lives in New Boston and attends the church regularly. The speech advocated for African American voting rights.
“We needed people to champion our cause, and our cause was to have schools equal,” Gill said before reading an excerpt from the speech, which King gave at the Lincoln Memorial during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.
Every year, the church in the center of New Boston holds a celebration of King, on the day before the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. The service included a reading of part of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, in which King proclaimed, “Let freedom ring, from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.”
The service started with the singing of the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which also become known as the Black national anthem.
Rev. Robert Woodland read from Matthew 5:38-48, which he called the basis of King’s “philosophy of non-violence.”
Woodland said U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, then governor, was a driving force in having King’s birthday recognized as a holiday in New Hampshire in 2000. The state was among the last to fully embrace the holiday.
As a guest speaker at the service, Shaheen called King one of the most “impactful and enduring figures” in the country’s history. Like Gill, Shaheen also went to segregated schools growing up in Missouri. She later became a teacher in one of the first integrated schools in Mississippi.
“It’s now been more than five decades since Dr. King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and yet many Americans continue to face those same barriers that Dr. King built a movement to tear down,” she said.
“Those barriers remain because of deep systemic issues that we really have to confront.
Shaheen said last year brought a record number of hate crimes and King’s message rings true today: “As Dr. King said, ‘We aren’t there yet, but we are going to get there.’”
Many held hands as the nearly 70 people sang out “We Shall Overcome” in the 1888 Presbyterian chapel, complete with wooden pews and stained glass windows.
Dot Marden, 84, of New Boston also experienced segregation in the South in her job at the YWCA in Danville, Virginia. She has lived in New Hampshire nearly 50 years.
She sang in the choir on Sunday.
“It is very meaningful for me particularly because I remember singing it so many years ago in the 60s,” she said. “I was right in the middle of the movement, so for me it spoke very deeply for me.”
Marlena Roach, 16, a sophomore, at Goffstown High School has learned about the civil rights movement in school, but got to experience it more closely in hearing from Gill and Shaheen during the service.
“I really liked the message of togetherness, especially at the end with the song, and everyone singing together,” she said.
Carolyn Ferguson-Wilson of Goffstown, who dressed as abolitionist Harriet Tubman for reenactments during church services in the past, called the service powerful.
“We need to continue to serve and not give up even though this fight still continues,” she said.
“I see the struggles every day still with people who are marginalized. People who are of color.”