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Pastor delivers message of unity in Martin Luther King celebration

America needs unity in a time of divisiveness.

That was the message Sunday night from Jimmie Hardaway Jr., pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Niagara Falls, who was asked to ruminate on Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again.” The poem’s title was taken this year as the theme of the annual gathering in Kleinhans Music Hall to celebrate the life and legacy of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“The point that (Hughes) was making, and the point I’m going to make tonight, is that we are all in this together,” Hardaway said backstage before his speech. “It’s not just one race, it’s not just one group. But all of us together, we have to work together. We have to work together as one.”

Hughes was concerned about all economically disadvantaged Americans and all minorities in 1935 when he wrote the poem, which Hardaway said influenced King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech 28 years later.

“Dr. King was saying that the dream he was speaking about was not just for African-Americans, but for all people,” Hardaway said.

Prior to Hardaway’s keynote speech Sunday, there was colorful pageantry, soaring music and heartfelt orations during the annual celebration program.

“A celebration is joyful, so we’re all here to have a joyful time in song, music, word and dance,” Bessie Patterson, the event’s coordinator, said during her introduction, which was followed by an a cappella rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

This year’s MLK Honorees were Linda Appleby for the Education Award; Christian DelPrince, Business Award; Walter Hobson, Community Award; Elder Reginald E. Kerr, Interfaith Award; Angelo M. Otero, Community Service Award; and Pastor Anita Williams, Woman of Distinction Award.

Sunday’s event sponsored by Concerned Citizens Following the Dream was one of several King observances being held this weekend in Western New York.

Earlier, LaKisha Simmons, assistant professor of global gender studies at the University at Buffalo, spoke about her 2015 book “Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans” during an event in the Buffalo History Museum sponsored by the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier.

“My work on Crescent City Girls began with a philosophical question: what did it feel like to be a black girl during Jim Crow in the segregated South?” Simmons told the audience of about 60 people in the museum’s auditorium. “What was it like to be black when blackness connotes second-class citizenship?”

That question led her to one posed by sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, who asked “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Preserving and analyzing African-American history is one way to pay tribute to King’s legacy, said W. Charles Brandy, president of the historical association, which works to promote African-American scholarship and researchers like Simmons.

“I truly was amazed at how she used the geography to tell the story and how the places told what happened to African-American girls in New Orleans,” Brandy said. “It was powerful.”

Later, at Kleinhans, Hardaway urged people to persevere and participate in “the process” to achieve a united, tolerant and inclusive America.

“There has to be a group of people who are determined that we’re not going to be affected by those exterior circumstances, but we’re going to continue to work for the good,” Hardaway said. “How do we do that? An example is tonight. What you see out there. The people who have come together from different backgrounds, different races. There has to be that type of mindset to come together on one accord.”

Hughes’ poem had a deeper meaning, he said.

“Even though it criticized the unfairness of life in America, it also gives hope and it states that a sense of hope for the American dream is soon to come,” he said. “I want to tell people to never lose hope.”