As we closed the event honoring the 35th Anniversary of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech, I leaned over to tell U.S. Congressman John Lewis, “We’re going to sing We Shall Overcome.” He stood straight up and crossed his arms in front of him declaring, “This is how Martin taught us to sing it.”
It was such an honor to stand alongside of this legend, singing the civil rights anthem and feeling his power flowing through from his hand to mine. His speech at the event still resonates: “Don’t give up. Don’t become bitter. Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Keep the faith. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold onto your dreams. Walk with the wind. Let the spirit of history be your guide.”
The next day the photo on the front page of The Boston Globe showed him holding my hand – with just the sleeve edge of my blue jacket peeking out. On his left was President Clinton. For the previous months the Stone Soup Leadership Institute’s team had carefully planned the event to be held at Union Chapel, the historic Black church in Oak Bluffs on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. The event was originally designed as a healing opportunity for the island community, after a tragic black murder in this town. Our event organizers and speakers included the first Black director of the Chamber of Commerce. and the Black principal of the high school. Over time, the event had gained a life of its own – with people sharing their own stories about how Dr. King had vacationed on the Vineyard. As it turned out, he had actually written this famous speech while visiting there in the summer of 1963.
As it was the launch of my book, Stone Soup for the World: Life-Changing Stories of Everyday Heroes, those featured in the book were invited: Trude Lash, Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretariat to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; the founders of both City Year and the Calvert Trust’s anti-apartheid movement.
Just a few days before the event we learned that President Clinton had accepted our invitation to attend our event. As a result, we were asked to disinvite 100 of our guests to accommodate the 100 reporters and TV cameras. With the addition of the President, Congressman Lewis and Charles Ogletree, it was decided that I would be the only local person on the tiny stage, and to speak along with our prestigious guests.
As I prepared my remarks, I reflected on how my life’s journey led to this auspicious moment. I called my mother and asked: “Why was I in Roxbury at age 13, teaching Black youth to read?” I was stunned by her response. “Your father marched with Dr. King.” It was the first time I’d ever heard this story. In my remarks that day, I shared this profound revelation and honored the Vineyard’s legacy with the NAACP. I invited people to share these stories with young people and challenge them to stand on the shoulders of these giants and have the courage to fight for a better world.
After the event, I searched my family’s history to better understand how they influenced my own personal passion and commitment. In March 1965, Dr. King had invited leaders from all religions to join him for the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Each one that responded to Dr. King’s Call to Action, brought back his vision for equality to their communities. Stories in my book featured Detroit’s Father Cunningham, who went on to found Focus Hope, to Chicago’s Rev. Frank Carr, who built INROADS, Inc. My father responded to Dr. King’s call as the lay leader of our Catholic church, under the progressive leadership of Pope John XXIII. When he returned home from that March, he was a changed man. In fact, he informed my mother that he wanted to move our growing family from Boston’s North Shore to the inner city of Dorchester and Roxbury to be with his new Black friends, as Dr. King called it, the Beloved Community.
Instead, on the weekends, our family would travel to visit his new friends. Rev. John Bullard and his wife Millie welcomed our large clan and treated us to barbecues in their backyard. My father bought a guitar and taught his children to sing the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” On our family camping trips we would sing it around the campfire. That summer while camping on the Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, we met and befriended Father Finley, St. Anne’s Episcopal, in Dorchester. He invited us to help his church community. That fall, my mother and I (aged 13) traveled into the inner city every week to teach teens, kids older than me, how to read. It was there that I first witnessed the staggering inequities facing the Black community. (In 2017 The Boston Globe reported that the median net worth of Black families was only $8.00.) Looking for creative ways to teach these youth, I discovered that comic books were the best way to keep their attention. This life-changing experience inspired me to become a teacher: the seed first planted with President Kennedy’s call for teachers. With my early tutoring imbedded in my being, I was committed that all children have the opportunity to learn.
While our very large middle-class family was surrounded by privilege, we struggled to make ends meet. However, there was always room for one more. In 1966, my parents supported Civil Rights leader Mae Allen Gadpaille and her METCO’s Bus Program to desegregate Boston’s schools. We welcomed Black students to our home so they could attend good schools. Then when Dr. King was assassinated, we joined with our Beloved Community in Dorchester to honor his memory. Through our tears we sang “We Shall Overcome.”
To honor Dr. King and his legacy, the Stone Soup Leadership Institute now closes our events by singing “We Shall Overcome.” For more than 20 years, the Institute has used the stories in the book and companion curriculum to inspire young people to overcome obstacles and envision their dreams for their lives, their communities and the world. It was an honor that U.S. Congressman John Lewis gave me his blessing to feature his story of the founding of SNCC in my forthcoming book, Stone Soup for a Sustainable World: Life-Changing Stories of Young Heroes so we can inspire young people to carry on his legacy.
For the 47th anniversary of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech, the Institute launched the Dream Initiative as a social media campaign to inspire the next generation to stay true to their own dreams for their lives, their communities and the world.
Oh, deep in my heart.
I do believe that We Shall Overcome one day.