By MATTHEW HAMILTON
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Landon Gosselin hopes to become a teacher — and would promote equality in the classroom.
The Northeastern Clinton Central School alum shared that dream at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration here on Monday.
Temperatures hovered in the teens, the president was inaugurated, and many stayed home to enjoy the end of their three-day weekend, but roughly 100 people crowded the pews of the Blessed John XXIII College Community Newman Center to celebrate the holiday.
They joined together in soulful singing, recited part of King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech and listened to Peru High School Assistant Principal Sanford Coakley give his account of integrating into an all-white school in rural Virginia when he was in fourth grade.
Coakley said before the ceremony that he hoped his speech would help younger generations understand how far the nation has come in terms of equality.
For some in attendance Monday, his talk did that, while also showing what is left to be done.
“We forget about our youth,” said J.W. Wiley, director of the Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion at SUNY Plattsburgh and a commemoration attendee.
“It’s important to let our youth know what part they can play.”
A handful of elementary and high-school-age youth were there, including Gosselin and Seton Catholic Central School graduate Eva Zalis, who received scholarships from the commission.
They read the scholarship essays they’d written, both of which touched on how they promote equality and would continue to do so.
“I think that everyone experiences or witnesses discrimination at some point,” Zalis said of the inspiration for her essay.
Wiley visits schools to speak about equality and teaches diversity classes at SUNY Plattsburgh. He said Coakley’s story is one he knows but not one his children, who were in attendance, necessarily do.
“We need to tell these stories so we can learn how far we’ve come,” he said. “But we need to recognize that we need to find ways to tell these stories to more people.”
Coakley wasn’t the only one to speak about how King’s work made positive change in their lives.
“(King) and other leaders truly shaped the man I became,” Plattsburgh City Councilor Jim Calnon said from the lectern. … The lessons Dr. King spoke to us in those days are what I believe.”
Commemoration moderator Stanley Ransom also highlighted the civil-rights leader’s work in his opening
remarks, calling for those in the crowd to think of others.
The ceremony, sponsored annually by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, was interspersed with music from the Martin Luther King Singers, who sang a pair of songs with the crowd, including civil-rights-movement anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
The predominately white, middle-aged crowd swayed, clapped and held hands as they joined in the melody, filling the church with song.
Soloists also sang soulful renditions of gospel classics as SUNY Plattsburgh professor Dexter Criss accompanied the tunes on piano.
Before the event began, Commission Chair Maxine Perry noted that the program was being changed because some people were sick or, in the case of government representatives State Sen. Betty Little, Assemblywoman Janet Duprey and Congressman Bill Owens, had other commitments.
Attendance was lower than normal, she said afterward, but that was to be expected with the flu outbreak and presidential inauguration.
For Coakley, taking part in such a celebration for the first time, lower attendance didn’t detract.
“It was a great program,” he said.