The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in New London received special attention at the service following the procession on Monday as speakers highlighted the role of such activity in the civil rights movement as well as a municipal fee that has been attached to marches in New London.
As in prior years, the march proceeded from City Hall to Shiloh Baptist Church with a brief stop outside the New London Superior Court. Accompanying police cruisers from the New London Police Department blocked traffic as marchers passed, with some participants carrying signs reading, “This is not a parade.”
Under an executive order by Mayor Daryl Finizio last May, events that make use of municipal services must account for costs like police overtime. The cost of these services must be paid in advance before a permit for the event is issued.
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The order has already been the source of some controversy, with the New London Irish Parade announcing that it will hold its celebration in another community this year after disagreements with the administration on the applicability of the fee. Finizio said on Friday that the organizers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day event told him that they were unaware of the executive order.
Finizio said he decided to foot the bill for the police overtime—approximately $800 to $1,000—out of personal funds. He said the city would not be able to violate its own policy but that he considered that organizers were acting in good faith and that the event was an important one to continue.
Bishop Benjamin K. Watts, pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church, thanked Finizio for pledging the funds. However, Watts also said he thought the city should make an effort to distinguish the march from other events.
“I told him it was an insult to ask for that fee,” said Watts.
Watts said church raises enough money to cover the municipal costs associated with the event at the service itself, but that these funds are donated to charitable causes. He said he considered parades to be celebratory events while the march and service were meant as a way to remember civil rights activists, including those who died for the cause.
“This is a commemoration,” said Watts. “We are remembering our dead. We are remembering our lost. We are remembering those who sacrificed their lives.”
Rev. Florence Clarke, pastor at the Clarke Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, said she took part in civil rights demonstrations such as lunch counter sit-ins. She said activists marched as a peaceful way to implement change.
“We marched and we didn’t have a permit,” said Clarke. “But what we met were fire hoses and arrest. We were placed in cages where they put animals.”
Invited to speak by Watts, Finizio promised to include in his 2014 budget proposal an item for funding commemorative events to be allocated at the discretion of the City Council. Finizio also spoke of King’s effort for economic justice and criticized the possibility of cuts to municipal aid in the effort to balance the state budget.
“They talk about cutting aid to cities like ours so that we have to lay off firemen, teachers, policemen. So that we have to charge people to march,” he said. “It’s wrong, and it’s time for us to focus our energies not just on the ongoing cause of civil rights, but on ensuring that economic justice and economic opportunity for all people in our society is realized in our lifetime.”
Elder Luther Wade III, the youth pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church and keynote speaker at the event, said equal access to education and health care are the key components of the modern civil rights movement.
“If we don’t have access to proper health care and aren’t able to live healthy lives, then we will not be able to fulfill our potential,” he said. “And if our children don’t have access to quality schools, then they will not be in a position to be contributing members of society.”
Rabbi Carl Astor of Congregation Beth El, who is retiring in June, thanked Watts for inviting him to be part of the service over the years and said the participants had become like a family to him. Referencing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Astor also said his personal dream is a world without unemployment and violence and with equal access to shelter, food, and health care.
“It’s not enough to have a dream and it’s not enough to interpret a dream,” said Astor. “You have to do something about that dream if it’s going to have any meaning at all. You have to do something to make it real, to make it happen.”