Calls for a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. began immediately after his assassination in 1968. As time went on, the holiday was adopted by cities, states, organizations, schools, and more, but it took until the 1980s for it to gain real momentum in Washington. In 1982, Coretta Scott King and the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change issued a call to local groups around the country to hold celebrations on Dr. King’s birthday as a way to show support for the national holiday. In Manchester, the local branch of the NAACP, the YWCA, and the Greater Manchester Black Scholarship Foundation responded to the call and organized the first local celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, held at the parish hall of Brookside Congregational Church in January, 1983, on the day of a major snowstorm.
The same groups organized another celebration the following year.
Later in 1984, additional groups joined the planning efforts and the celebration continued to grow. Over the next few years we agreed to give an annual “Martin Luther King Award” to give recognition to a New Hampshire person who embodied the spirit of Dr. King in some way. We also initiated an Arts and Writing Contest to engage NH school children. We organized a Speakers Bureau. Since we were doing more than just holding an annual event we began to call ourselves the Martin Luther King Coalition and sought additional member organizations. Soon it was a pretty diverse group including faith groups, unions, educational institutions, local agencies, and social justice advocates.
The legislation that declared the 3rd Monday of January to be Martin Luther King, Jr. Day passed the US Congress in 1983, was signed by President Ronald Reagan, and went into effect in 1986. During those intervening 3 years most of the states which did not already observe the holiday agreed to do so. New Hampshire was one of the holdouts, despite the fact that legislation for an MLK holiday had been proposed going back to 1979. By 1986, then, pressure was building for the state to adopt the holiday and the annual observance of MLK Day took on a new significance as an opportunity to support the movement for a state holiday. Also by this time, local MLK Day events were taking place in Nashua and Portsmouth.
In 1988, members of the MLK Coalition invited the groups from Nashua and Portsmouth to meet to develop an organized campaign to win passage of the state holiday. This imitative continued until it was ultimately adopted in 1999 and first observed in 2000. (See this PDF document for a quick history.)
Throughout this period, the MLK Coalition’s annual event continued to lift up the importance of getting the state to recognize the holiday. From time to time, especially when MLK Day occurred before the NH Presidential Primary, the event draw national figures (e.g. Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman, Roger Wilkins). From Brookside Church the event moved to Faith Baptist, NH College (now SNHU), and then to Notre Dame College, where it was held until that institution closed down. At that time we found a new home at St. George Greek Orthodox, whose community center is a excellent venue.
Following the death of Lionel Johnson, one of the Coalition’s founders and an important figure in the Manchester community, we agreed to name the awards for winners of the Arts and Writing Contest in his honor.
For a number of years the Coalition engaged Vanessa Washington-Johnson Bloehman (Lionel’s daughter) as a paid coordinator. Since her death a few years ago we have made do with volunteers. But the format is still pretty much the same: an annual MLK Award, an Arts and Writing Contest, a guest speaker, music performed by high school jazz bands, and a potluck meal/social hour. Attendance is usually at least 150 but can get up to 400 or more if there’s a major speaker and the weather is good. Russell and Jackie Weatherspoon, from Exeter, are such good emcees that we invite them back each year. We have suspended production of an ad book due to insufficient volunteers but continue to accept donations to cover the costs of producing the event.
Following Vanessa’s death, we agreed to give an occasional award in her name in recognition of a young person who shows great promise in the fields of social justice, racial understanding, and peaceful change.
December 17, 2013