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Celebrating King's life in Kleinhans Music Hall, where he once spoke

Sean Kirst

Kriner Cash, superintendent of the Buffalo city schools, spent a lot of time Saturday contemplating what he'll say tonight from the stage at Kleinhans Music Hall, the same stage where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed Buffalo only a little more than 50 years ago.

Cash will be particularly conscious of the young adults and children in the audience from throughout Western New York. The core message, Cash said, may well be a question, the idea of considering "what is the journey here that best represents what Dr. King stood for?"

Cash will be the featured speaker at Kleinhans, during a 6 p.m. celebration of King's life presented by Buffalo's Concerned Citizens Following the Dream Committee. That city landmark is where King spoke to Buffalo on Nov. 9, 1967, less than five months before the American champion for human rights was shot to death.

"It all ties in together," said Bessie Patterson, longtime chairwoman of Sunday's gathering.

She said the celebration will include a musical tribute featuring the St. Vincent de Paul youth choir, Miss Barbara's School of Dance, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, Patterson's citywide chorus and many other organizations.

The committee also will present many community service awards, including a "Woman of Distinction" honor to Mary Ruth Kapsiak, a former president of the Buffalo Board of Education who's spent much of her life in education and public service.

From Sean Kirst: Dr. King, a Bible, an outstretched hand and a moment in Buffalo, a half-century ago

The evening's theme is "Breaking the chains of injustice," and it comes at a moment of renewed national debate about race in America. In a meeting last week with lawmakers, President Trump reportedly said that he didn't see the reasoning behind allowing in more immigrants from nations he identified with a common and graphic vulgarity, nations including Haiti and all those in Africa.

Yet Cash said his focus will be on Buffalo, and youth, and the idea of building hope and fraternity. He said Buffalo has proven to him repeatedly that it is a "very generous community," and he said one of his themes will be a question faced by all children, a question King answered with historic resonance:

How do you find your voice?

His focus on children fits with what organizers describe as the theme of the event. Patterson said the annual gathering is intended to honor and inspire youth in the community, and parents from throughout Western New York are encouraged to bring their families.

"We all know what Dr. King wanted to achieve," Patterson said. "Sometimes it just doesn't seem like we're getting there as fast as he wanted."

Patterson said one of her dreams is for young people to understand the depth and extent of the struggle. She was raised in Georgia and Florida in the Jim Crow South, where it was hard to travel at night because no service station or restaurant would allow her parents to even use their restrooms. Her family, she said, could never truly feel safe.

Under the law of the land, she said quietly, "people did unkind things, and there were many places where I couldn't walk in the front door."

Those conditions changed, she said, only because King and so many others put their lives and safety on the line, because they ignored the angry voices telling them to stop, that they shouldn't shake the status quo. Patterson moved to Buffalo as a young woman, and spent a career as a seamstress at the old M. Wile Co. before retiring.

Her greatest dream, she said, is that young people today will understand the suffering she remembers from her youth, that they'll appreciate the opportunities that she and millions of other African-Americans could once hardly envision, and that these young women and men will see their own responsibility in continuing to push forward, while helping others.

That awareness, she said, is the best gift they can provide to all those who came before.

"They are able to walk in freedom now, or at least so much freer than we were at that time," she said.

Still, she looks around at the nature of suffering and trial in too many city neighborhoods, and she knows it is not yet close to the world that King envisioned. Cash, certainly, is aware of the same point, and if his speech about King will be one of aspiration, it will also be one of reality.

If King were still alive today, Cash said, "I'm going to suggest that he'd be quite busy."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.


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