LACONIA — As a local mother of school-age children – two Black, one bi-racial – LaToya Beck, a 39-year-old medical office coordinator, worries about what the future will mean for them. 

Will society and the community move away from tribalism - and an ongoing fear and mistrust of people whose skin color, ethnicity, religion and beliefs are different?

To Beck, who is Black, Martin Luther King Day is a celebration of the famous civil right’s leader’s hope and message, and his lasting impact on generations. It’s also a reminder of the peace and style in which King delivered that message in a time of racial and social unrest. To Beck and others, including historians worldwide, King’s themes of unity and equality were central – not militance, violence or divisiveness that can spill like kerosene on burning issues of politics and race.

“For so long, Martin Luther King’s vision was for everybody to be created equally, and for us to all get along together,” Beck said. “Not just Black and white people, but for all ethnicities and across religious and political differences. We’ve strayed a little bit away from that. It’s more of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality as opposed to ‘we’ as Americans,” said Beck “It seems as if we’re going backwards.”

“We need Dr. Martin Luther King today,” said David Osman, a member of the Laconia Human Relations Committee. “This is about basic human relationships. We need to be reminded of his dignity and his grace. It has to come from the heart and the head.”

At a time when American society is splintered into factions and democracy is reeling from multiple assaults, the Human Relations Committee hopes to start a cooling off, listening and learning process at home.

On Sunday at 3 p.m., over Zoom, the committee and Mayor Andrew Hosmer will host a sharing of dreams and ideas – what Dr. King’s speech means today, including the changes they’d like to see locally and ways we see, treat, and speak to or about one another. The online forum is intended to nurture something basic, but hard to find in public life today: civil civic discourse; a respectful conversation, an open exchange of ideas and opinions, and a vehicle for peace. Panelists are not finalized, but will include Dr. Larissa Baia, president of Lakes Region Community College, Rev. Judith Wright of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Laconia, and Osman.

“This is a time when people need to talk together,” said David Stamps, chair of the Human Relations Committee. “The focus is on our community. There may be people who share from their past. The tenor will be focused on positivity, underscoring that Dr. King’s message and success was focused on nonviolent protest,” said Stamps, who condemns the recent violence at the Capitol and in Portland, Oregon this summer. “Violence only begets more violence and destroys families,” said Stamps, who said it creates a legacy of anger.

For nearly 60 years, since Rev. Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” was delivered in Washington in August 1963, America has skirmished with racism and its insidious forms, trying to eradicate it in obvious venues, such as schools, buses and public places, and the voting booth. But fear and intolerance linger, entrenched and often out of view. King’s short and powerful life, and his turning point address, continue to inspire students, leaders, activists and ordinary citizens today to work against hate, unfairness and intolerance – in order to create a better community for everyone, including neighbors who look and speak differently.

“We have built-in biases and prejudices, and we all need to work on that,” Osman said.

“We need so much less negativity about others, and so much more positivity about the people who are living here, regardless of who they are,” said Margaret Donnelly, a Laconia resident and Human Relations Committee member whose parents were Japanese and Chinese. “People see your color and make assumptions about you,” she said. “We need to celebrate the differences of each individual, not because of skin color” or other labels including ethnicity, gender or religion, “but because of who they are” as people.

Committee members say they hope Sunday’s forum will lead to future sessions on topics such as democracy and how to participate in the democratic process (as well as threats to that freedom), racism, civil discourse, equality versus equity, the Holocaust and genocide, and how to exercise one’s civil rights. The goal is to increase awareness, understanding and connections between residents – as well as participation in public life – things that have been subverted by tribalism, stereotyping and toxic messages and falsehoods that have spread on social media, which can masquerade as truths and spark hateful acts.

On Martin Luther King Day, “I think it’s important to remember the strong and peaceful words” that impacted an entire nation, said Cierra Pinkney, 23, who is bi-racial,  grew up in Laconia, and works for Lakes Region Community Services. “It’s important to have those words to live for and live by because so many of those issues (including racism) haven’t gone away. It’s intolerance of people who are different on all spectrums, differences that don’t stop at race” – differences that shouldn’t prompt judgement or shunning. “People can also be disabled physically or mentally,” Pinkney said.

Beck’s current hope is for everyone in diverse groups to be able to gather and engage in a healthy, barrier-free discussion – and “for us all to be in the same room without name calling. It’s hard to have separate views” and be able to talk openly about them with others who don’t share those opinions. “It’s a fine line between a heated discussion and an argument.”

Beck’s dream is also for people locally “to be aware that there are residents of all ethnicities, and be able to respect that in what they post and say, and know when a joke can be offensive to someone else.”  For reasons that include isolation and a lack of understanding and empathy, “people are not aware of what they say and write” or that it could hurt someone deeply, said Beck. Toxic messages only cause people to segregate further.

“I met someone (Black) in the grocery store who had been living here for almost 30 years," Beck recalled. "When she got here, she said it was herself and one other Black family. ‘Back then, you just pretty much kept to yourself,’ she said.” Now there are more people of color, but inherited attitudes and hard-to-kill stereotypes persist, keeping artificial divides alive. “The people who need to be part of these conversations really don’t see that they have a problem,” she said.

“It’s important to recognize people’s differences and celebrate them. Racism is certainly not the only form of discrimination,” said Pinkney. “But when a big event happens, you see all the pictures and memes” circulating instantly on social media. “People don’t look at the big picture. Automatically, it’s races pitted against each other.  The stereotypes and prejudice is really crazy, and blown way out of proportion.”

Pinkney said she hopes conversations will keep going and education over time will foster acceptance and help people to live cohesively.

On Martin Luther King Day, Carol Pierce, a founding member of the Human Relations Committee and an advocate for refugees and immigrants, said she is reminded of “the unfinished work we need to do to make the country value the diversity of its citizens. We have to be thoughtful to do it in the style that Martin Luther King worked in: education and non-violence. I think a lot about the word freedom,” which means “we all share the responsibility for someone else to live freely, to be who they need to be.”

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