Amid the pageantry and soul-stirring music Sunday in Kleinhans Music Hall honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was one man whose actions in October some say exemplifies the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader.
Darnell Barton, the NFTA-Metro Bus driver who has been hailed as a hero for preventing a woman from jumping off a Buffalo overpass, was seated in the front row by organizers as one of 10 “MLK Honorees.”
“It is an honor to even be mentioned in the same sentence as someone like Dr. King,” Barton said. “To be part of his legacy is an absolute honor.”
Sunday’s 34th annual celebration began with a diverse program of music from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, which teamed up with church choir members on such hymns as “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Hallelujah! Let’s Praise The Lord” and “Ain’t He Good Children.”
The evening’s emcee, Rev. Dr. James A. Lewis III of Miracle Missions Full Gospel Church, apologized to School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold and Superintendent Pamela C. Brown for the colloquial title of that last selection.
“It might not be good English, but it’s good church,” Lewis said.
Organizers used the universal language of music to bring together people of all races, religions and ethnicities, said Bessie Patterson, chairwoman of Concerned Citizens Following the Dream and coordinator of Sunday’s program, entitled “The Man, the Dream, the Legacy.”
“It’s incredible how we were able to learn the pieces individually and we came together at the first rehearsal and you would think we had been singing together forever,” she said.
The theme of Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown’s keynote speech was “What would Dr. King say if he was here?”
“I think he would see progress in the city and the nation but would believe that there is still much more work for us to do,” Brown said before his speech.
Other city leaders echoed the message that while King’s vision of equality for all people in housing, jobs and education has not been fully realized yet, progress should not be discounted.
“People often ask me if I feel like for every step forward we take two steps back,” said Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen. “And my answer to that has been absolutely not. We have come much further from where we were in the 1960s and 1950s to where we are now.”
While the city in recent years has enjoyed intense economic development, Seals Nevergold noted disparities in housing, jobs and education.
“We’re working very hard to change all that,” she said. “But as far as Dr. King’s dream is concerned, we haven’t reached that yet. I don’t believe we’re in a post-racial society.”
To achieve equity in education, the area’s disadvantaged students should have a school’s best resources directed at them to ensure they graduate and go on to college, said Pamela Brown.
“We know that low income figures, very significantly, in the education of children and how well they typically do in school,” she said.
The state Board of Regents plans to announce today that it has found in State Museum archives the only known audio recording of a 1962 speech by King commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. King gave the speech at a New York City hotel at the invitation of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.
“Mankind through the ages has been in a ceaseless struggle to give dignity and meaning to human life,” King began in the 26-minute speech, which is posted on the State Museum website at www.nysm.nysed.gov/mlk.
State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, one of the event’s sponsors, said the nation must not lose sight of the messages King conveyed about basic human rights in such speeches.
“If we were to ever forget it, we would undoubtedly revert and we cannot as a community and nation allow that to happen,” he said. “We must continue to work toward equality for all Americans.”
Besides Barton, other MLK Honorees were:
• Lurie L. Ford Dubois, who rose from an Arkansas plantation to become first lady of Jordan Grove Baptist Missionary Church, where her husband, the Rev. Glenn Harvey Dubois, was pastor for 40 years until his death in 2005.
• Barbara Glover, owner of Miss Barbara’s School of Dance, the longest running African-American-owned dance school in Buffalo.
• The Rev. John T. Hilliard, a retired elementary school teacher and pastor of Humboldt Parkway Baptist Church.
• Yvonne Minor-Ragan, president of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, who as principal transformed Westminster Community Charter School from one of the worst-performing schools in Buffalo to one of the best.
• Wilda Ramos-Morales, a bilingual teacher for Buffalo Public Schools.
• Catherine F. Schweitzer, executive director of the Baird Foundation.
• Lee Allen Spight Sr., pastor of the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ.
• Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., Buffalo’s commissioner of fire.
• Robert B. Wilmers, chairman of M&T Bank.
Sunday’s program at Kleinhans was one of several Martin Luther King Jr. observances being held this weekend in Western New York.