Drawing heavily on religious themes, the dreams of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, a 15-year-old boy delivered a message of motivation and hope for the future at a community celebration honoring the slain civil rights leader Sunday night in Kleinhans Music Hall.
Paraphrasing King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Da’Lonce Blackman told an audience estimated at more than 400 people that “I convey a vision of the future free of the evil of racism, where all of God’s children will be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.”
Da’Lonce, a sophomore at Buffalo’s magnet School for the Visual and Performing Arts, was the keynote speaker at the program sponsored by a group called the Concerned Citizens Following the Dream, and entitled “Fulfilling the Dream Moving Forward.”
Da’Lonce was born long after King was killed by an assassin’s bullet April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to lead a peaceful march in support of striking sanitation workers. Yet, the young speaker said Sunday that “I am motivated to achieve my dreams because of Dr. King.”
He said King’s work in the civil rights movement helped pave the way for Obama’s election.
“Only God knew that Barack Obama would become the 44th president of the United States,” Da’Lonce said.
“If I could talk to our president today and ask him how he deals with all the confusion around us,” the keynote speaker said, “I believe he would say, ‘If God be for me – and he is – who could be against me?’ ”
By coincidence, the celebration in honor of King came on the same day that Obama took the oath of office for his second term as president.
Da’Lonce, who was only 11 years old at the time, also spoke at a celebration in Buffalo of Obama’s first inauguration four years ago.
He said his remarks Sunday were intended not only to encourage people to follow their dreams, but also “to help people get closer to God.”
“Society is in such bad shape today that I urge a new reverence for God,” he said. “I urge people to go to church, to use good manners and good behavior.”
Da’Lonce is an acolyte at True Bethel Baptist Church, where he lights the altar candles every Sunday and helps with monthly programs led by his mother, Valerie Nelson, a minister in training.
His own dream is to study a curriculum in sports communications or media communications at Notre Dame University. Failing that, he said, his second choice would be to pursue a career in vocal music. He is a tenor but, at age 15, his voice is changing to that of a bass.
Bessie Patterson, chairwoman and coordinator of Sunday’s program, said her mission is to “carry on Dr. King’s legacy and fulfill his dream.”
“We need to keep this alive,” Patterson said. “We have to encourage our youth to achieve as Martin Luther King did. We have to keep this tradition in the forefront.”
She has been leading annual programs here in memory of King since 2007, and she has coordinated an annual gospelfest on the city’s East Side since 1987.
Sunday’s program also included gospel music, dance performances and the presentation of certificates encouraging qualified students to pursue higher levels of education.
Citations named in King’s honor were awarded to “pioneers and trailblazers in the Buffalo Niagara area who have been and continue to pave the way for our future generations.” Among the recipients were:
• Bishop Michael A. Badger, senior pastor of Bethesda World Harvest International Church.
• Lana D. Benatovich, president of the National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York.
• Rev. William A. Bunton, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church.
• Mary Harley Gresham, vice provost for educational collaboration and engagement at the University at Buffalo.
• Theodore Kirkland, a former police officer and member of the state Board of Parole and author of the book “Spirit and Soul Odyssey of a Black Man in America.”
• Maria Rivera, assistant to the director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
• Carl Scanlon Jr., manager of Wegmans Amherst Street store and strong advocate for family literacy and neighborhood development.
• Candice Titus-Fuller, an employee representative at Wegmans and a leader in the company’s work scholarship program.
• Christine Demetria Wingo, a leader in local educational programs.
Sunday’s program closed with the singing of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”