BILLINGS — The racial equality group Not In Our Town Billings held a virtual Martin Luther King Jr. Day service Sunday with a theme of "bridge over troubled waters" where different local faith leaders offered their thoughts on the advice King would have for the people of today.
Pastor Melvin Terry of All Nations Church and president of the Black Heritage Foundation spoke first, saying the day is one to reflect on race relations in Billings.
“It is a good time to count the blessings and chart our course for more progress and success in race relations, understanding culture and heritage of all our citizens in our city in the greater Billings region," Terry said.
Terry and other speakers touched on themes of unity among Americans during this time that feels more politically divided than ever.
“I hope that we all can be bridges for a better tomorrow, whether in faith, businesses, politics or other areas of life. With all our citizens, I hope and pray we can all treasure the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and to seek and to continue to apply such words into action into our daily lives," Terry said.
Angela Matta-Habeck spoke next. She represented the Billings Baha'i community, a faith formed in the early 20th century where believers say God reveals its will through divine messengers. Matta-Habeck said she hoped 2021 is a year of unity compared to 2020 with all its hardships.
"Martin Luther King today, would once again say, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ 2020 really showed us what that statement meant. My hope for 2021 is that we get to a place of unity. That we can get to a place of wellness. That we can begin to find the things that we have very similar instead of different. That we can hail from all that we endured in 2020," Matta-Habeck said.
Pastor Angie Dornisch with Hope United Methodist Church said King would be proud of some events that happened in 2020. She named the advancement of the Black Lives Matter message and the movements for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
Dornisch also said king would be happy with the minority representation in congress after the General Election.
“The 117th Congress is the most diverse Congress we have ever had in America, with a historical number of women, racial minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. All of these achievements would make the Rev Dr. King proud. What progress we have seen in this country and what thanks we have to give for the Rev. Dr. King and many others who have paved the way for us," Dornisch said.
Dornisch said King would be less proud of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., where five people lost their lives.
“As I meditate on the dreams the Rev. Dr. King had for the United States, I know he would encourage all of us to keep fighting the good fight of justice for all God’s children. To not grow weary in doing good, but to be bold in our witness. To confront the evils of racism in whatever forms they might present themselves," Dornisch said.
The keynote speaker for the service was Erik Uriarte, student rabbi and director of religious programming at Congregation Beth Aaron in Billings, a congregation affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism.
Uriarte also holds a bachelors degree in political science with a minor in Jewish studies from Sonoma State University in California. Uriarte's remarks focused on access to voting, an issue King championed during his time as a civil rights leader in the 1960's.
While the country had passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act many southern states still had Jim Crow laws restricting voting with poll taxes, birth certificate requirements or reading or intelegence tests.
“Dr. King knew, for example, that Louisiana, a state with one of the highest percentages of black Americans at the end of the Civil War went from sending multiple (minority) individuals as part of their congressional delegations to having no black people vote a mere 20 years later because of oppression," Uriarte said.
Uriarte said voter suppression in various forms is still active in the country today. He said the more people that are allowed to vote, the better.
“Despite the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act being passed, the former of which has been allowed to lapse, we still have this problem in America. The words of Dr. King were centuries in the making, but they still resonate with us today. We must do everything in our power to maintain free and fair elections. We must do everything in our power to respect that everyone has a voice. We must do everything in our power to make sure the law does not subvert justice," Uriarte said.
Uriarte said King absolutely knew the power of the vote. Uriarte referenced King's "Give Us the Ballot" address delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Case on May 17, 1957.
"Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot (Give us the ballot), and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs (Yeah) into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens," King said in 1957.
Not In Our Town Billings Chairman Fitzgerald "Jerry" Clark was the last to speak he said the country needs to remember its history and move forward with unity in order to heal.
“We must learn from the lessons of the past. There can be no true unity unless we have truth, unless we have justice. At this moment, when our nation clearly needs to heal, we all have to play our part in that and Not In Our Town is committed to creating courageous conversations so that we may seek to bridge these gaps. These conversations must be based on truth, based on reality and they must demand justice. We can and we must reach our with compassion and love, but we can not ignore the reality that so much of what Erik Spoke about in the past is present right here today," Clark said.
View the full service on Not In Our Town's Facebook page by clicking here.