WOONSOCKET — With a tip of the hat from President Obama, civic leaders and church groups capped a three-day tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King yesterday with the dedication of a new work of art honoring the slain civil rights leader.
Over 150 people braved a bone-chilling morning to take part in the ceremony, across the street from St. James Baptist Church, the city’s largest African-American congregation, which commissioned the steel-plate, multi-colored silhouettes of Dr. King preaching to a half-dozen followers, young and old.
Mayor Leo Fontaine, one of a slew of dignitaries who attended the affair at the meet-up of Mason and South Main streets, proclaimed the work “a symbol of what great people can do when they work together.”
Only plywood mockups were used for the ceremony, because the final product isn’t finished yet. Brad Fesmire, a project manager with RiverzEdge Arts who designed the silhouettes, says more money needs to be raised to complete the work. Citizens Bank Foundation has provided enough money to erect perhaps half the figures by spring, but about $6,000 more is needed.
Leaders from St. James Baptist Church, members of the City Council, the legislature, local civic organizations, social service agencies and non-profits were among those who took part in the ceremony, punctuated by spirited performances of gospel songs and prayers. Anne Pitts’ voice washed over the crowd like a warm, silky blanket with her soulful rendition of “Precious Lord.”
“That was one of Dr. King’s favorite songs,” said Tom Gray, a deacon from St. James who served as the master of ceremonies.
The event featured some special guests, including Jurisdictional Bishop Harvey L. Lewis of the All Nations Church of God in Christ, with his wife, Gloria, who came all the way from their hometown of Washington, D.C., to marvel at the display and offer prayers. A branch of All Nations Church of God is located in the Fairmount section, and its pastor, Eugene Kinslow, was also on hand for the event.
Another highpoint came courtesy of U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who brought a message of support directly from the Oval Office.
Quoting from a letter written by President Obama, Cicilline praised the organizers of a banquet at Savini’s Friday where the silhouettes were shown for the first time and backers described them as a lasting tribute to King’s dream of a racially harmonious society.
“Events like the St. James banquet commemorate this proud legacy and remind us of our responsibility to build a brighter tomorrow for the next generation,” the president wrote. “As you gather on this special occasion I wish you continued well-being in the year ahead.”
Gunned down in April 1968, King would have turned 83 years old Sunday and, despite the passage of time, his themes of non-violent protest, inclusivity and tolerance still reverberate today. But Cicilline said that even though many revere King as a potent catalyst for the civil rights movement or winning the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s important to remember that the equality King was fighting for was also economic.
“In the final hours of his life he was marching with sanitation workers, men who picked up trash for a living who were fighting for better living conditions and better wages,” the congressman said.
Along with the morale-booster from Obama, there were a few other surprises at the event, among them, a public pledge from State Rep. Jon Brien and State Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt to find state funds to cover the balance of the production costs for creating the silhouette figures.
And Fontaine said the triangle of turf marking the intersection of Mason and South Main streets won’t be a no-name traffic island much longer. With help from City Council President John Ward and council members Chris Beauchamp, Bob Moreau and Dan Gendron, it will soon be officially christened “Dr. Martin Luther King Square.”
The patch of earth will be entirely re-landscaped in preparation for the permanent King display, creating a visual spectacle the mayor said he hopes will “draw people in” and make them think about the meaning of King’s life.
The mayor, who appointed Police Chief Tom Carey to work with a committee that helped design the tribute, said it evolved into the sculpture-like silhouettes partly because the one thing he didn’t want was another lifeless monument in stone.
Fesmire got it. A “granite plaque” or a mute, “dead statue” wouldn’t cut it. He was looking for “something vibrant” that no one would forget after driving by.
“We want people to interact with this for years to come,” Fesmire said. “Woonsocket can be proud to have a really cool, really innovative Martin Luther King Memorial, so bring your kids, bring your school and interact with this.”
Though others give most of the credit for the design to Fesmire, he called himself a “small part of a really big project.” He singled out Margaux Morisseau of NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, the mayor and Chief Carey, and Deacon Gray for helping pull it all together.
Though Morisseau declined an invitation to speak at the ceremony, she issued a statement explaining the genesis of the work, and why it’s to be erected at the chosen site.
“The location had long been seen at the trouble spot in the community,” she said. “The hope is that the monument not only celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. King, but also creates a more purposeful median to prevent some of the dangers present. It will also bring a renewed vitality to the highly visible corner.”