YWCA celebrates King, examines civil rights struggles

From left, GHS student Treasure Pray, YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer and Yale University professor of African-American Studies Jonathan Holloway were all key parts of the annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. —Ken Borsuk

From left, GHS student Treasure Pray, YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer and Yale University professor of African-American Studies Jonathan Holloway were all key parts of the annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
—Ken Borsuk

On Thursday, Jan. 16, the YWCA of Greenwich commemorated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with several guest speakers, including Yale University professor of African-American studies Jonathan Holloway and Treasure Pray, a Greenwich High School senior and this year’s recipient of the YWCA Racial Justice Scholarship award.

This annual event has been a major element of the YWCA’s yearly programming as part of its commitment to its original mission of eliminating racism and empowering women nationwide. Each year, the YWCA honors students from the Greenwich schools who have done remarkable work fighting against racism and prejudice. Treasure, this year’s honoree, was recognized for her committed efforts to combat racism.

The keynote address for the program was delivered by Dr. Holloway, a renowned specialist in post-emancipation U.S. history and distinguished lecturer and author. In his lecture, he discussed the inspiring legacies of three men integral to the fight for civil rights: John Jack, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr. He detailed the connections among the three remarkably different men, emphasizing their pursuit of a shared goal to realize their fundamental constitutional rights.

Though the work of Dr. King warrants no introduction, John Jack is perhaps a figure seldom discussed in the history of civil rights. He was a former slave who died a free man, in the midst of his fight to be recognized as a citizen. The epitaph on his gravestone, which was written by a local attorney and abolitionist, highlights the anguish he felt regarding the contradictions between the freedoms promised by the Constitution and the realities of his life. “God wills us free, man wills us slave, I will as God’s will, God’s will be done.”

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was another individual who strongly expressed his frustrations with the cruel restrictions to freedom. Dr. Holloway cited Douglass’s famous 1852 speech, What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?, when he was asked by his peers to speak at a celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In his acerbic oratory, he condemned the fundamental irony found in the false promises bestowed by the country’s founding documents.

“You have embodied in Frederick Douglass’s words a vision of how precious the founding rights of this country are, and also the ironies that are borne in this country that professes freedoms while having slavery in its midst,” said Dr. Holloway.

Dr. Holloway linked together these three men, united in their fight against the ironic injustices of the founding documents, which promised such values as freedom and justice for all, but not for African Americans. Dr. King’s speech “figuratively invokes the words of Frederick Douglass, he invokes the spirit of John Jack. He goes back to the founding documents of this country and offers his opinion.”

Dr. Holloway painted a picture of a Martin Luther King Jr. little known in public record — as reluctant representative and speaker put up on the national stage during the famous bus boycott spurred by Rosa Parks not by choice but by the orders of his superiors at the ministry. He was considered somewhat of a sacrificial lamb, a man representing the ministry and sharing words that could endanger the well-being of both himself and his family.

“He was set up to fail, a reluctant minister walking up to the lectern. People didn’t know what to expect,” said Dr. Holloway. “King was far from a perfect person, but he certainly had an incredible gift, a gift that no one quite understood at that moment.”

Dr. Holloway stressed the importance of remembering Dr. King’s legacy, of continuing to fight for the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. This message was echoed by an official proclamation given by First Selectman Peter Tesei stressing the town’s commitment to fighting racial injustice and bigotry.

Also on hand at the celebration were state Reps. Stephen Walko (R-150th) and Fred Camillo (R-151st), who both spoke. Mr. Walko discussed several surprising facts that he discovered while researching the life and work of Dr. King. Dr. King had allegedly prepared a speech titled Normalcy Never Again instead of his famous “I have a dream” remarks. Only after the prompting of a friend did he waver from his prepared words and deliver the iconic speech. Mr. Walko used this example to underscore his message about the importance of friends.

“You really are who you are through your friends; those who support you, and encourage you to stand up and do what is right,” said Mr. Walko.

The evening’s highlight was the awarding of the YWCA Racial Justice scholarship to Treasure Pray. Adrianne Singer, president and CEO of the YWCA, introduced Treasure, describing her as “an ardent learner, innate leader and giving spirit, whose positive interactions with others combat racial prejudice every day.”

As part of the festivities, Treasure gave a thoughtful speech that considered her experiences over the past few years, from onetime Bronx resident to Greenwich student. She candidly shared the numerous questions she had upon her move to Greenwich five years ago, spanning whether she would make new friends, experience culture shock, and be able to relate to her peers.

She confidently stated that she was now equipped to answer those questions.

“Did I make new friends in this town? Some of the most exciting cultural journeys I have shared are with the phenomenal friends I have made here. Was I able to relate to anyone? The connections that I have made with people here have benefited me in so many ways,” Treasure said.

As a self-described crusader for racial justice, Treasure said she has made it a personal mission not just to fight for rights but to celebrate racial uniqueness. With the help of the YWCA scholarship, she’ll be able to continue her mission as she moves on to a grander stage at college.

“I made it my vision to learn about and enjoy every cultural difference I encountered here in Greenwich. I’m so grateful to be the recipient of the YWCA Racial Justice award, and I will continue to appreciate the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the differences between others as I go forward,” Treasure said.


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