CATSKILL — More than 30 students, community members and clergy carrying signs, photographs and banners marched by candlelight Thursday to spread a message of peace and justice.
Catskill has held the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. March and Observance for 17 years, always on the Thursday before the national holiday. More than 200 people filled the High School auditorium for the annual ceremony Thursday.
Escorted by the Catskill Police Department, marchers made their way from the Second Baptist Church on Main Street as darkness fell, down Main Street to the Greene County Courthouse, turning right at the traffic light to West Bridge Street and across the Uncle Sam Bridge, turning right at the next traffic light to West Main Street and to Catskill High School.
Students performed readings at each stop, with Joanna Van Swoke beginning at the church and Chris Hogan at the court house. Retired Catskill teacher Ed Synan recounted to the community the significance of each stop for those who did not march at the closing ceremony.
Rabbi Zoe B. Zak of Temple Israel in Catskill reminded marchers of the spirit and meaning of the event. For King’s words to be effective, she said, they have to be translated into action.
“I pray that King’s teachings may be words we can embody in the way that we live our lives and not just be words that we repeat just to say but words to help us live in peace and create equality for all,” Zak said.
The event is open to the entire community, said Kim Bushane, an adviser for the event, adding that members of the middle and elementary school student council were in attendance, as was the Rotary’s Interact Club.
“We usually have about 20 to 30 marchers, depending on how cold it is,” Bushane said, adding that more people attend the closing ceremony at the school.
“We’ve had as many as 70 when it’s warmer out,” former Catskill teacher and Camera Club adviser Dick Muggeo said.
Muggeo is a key member of the organizing team, Bushane said.
“It wouldn’t happen without him,” she said.
Muggeo went over instructions for crossing the street safely with the marchers while handing out battery-operated candles.
“In 17 years, no one has gotten hurt,” he said. “If you’re the first, you get 17 years of detention.”
The veteran marcher also requested that the candles be returned when the entourage reached the school.
“In 17 years, I’ve only lost 12 candles,” he said.
Michele Cousens of Catskill attended the march with her sons Aiden, 10, and Aaron, 8.
“Aiden is in the Business Club at school and they both were involved in Cub Scouts,” Cousens said. “They like to do community activities.”
The high school chorus performed “Shed a Little Light,” and “Let there be Peace on Earth,” during the ceremony.
Catskill Elementary Business Club and student council performed a ‘I Have a Dream’ skit.
Members of the middle school student council read aloud some of Dr. King’s quotes.
There are a few annual traditions that the marchers do every year, Muggeo said.
Two students are selected to read some of Dr. King’s most famous speeches.
“Justice Brantley delivered “I have a dream,” which Dr. King gave on Aug. 28 1963 during the march on Washington for jobs and freedom,” Muggeo said. “Amara Wilson delivered “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” which Dr. King gave right before he was assassinated and it was the last speech he ever gave.”
Another tradition is to another fallen heroes during the ceremony.
“We recognize civil rights activists who have died in the last year,” Muggeo said.
At this year’s ceremony the marchers honored Olivia hooker, the first woman to join the coast guard, D. J. Roundtree, a minister, attorney and civil rights activist who in 1955 won the first bus desegregation case, Aretha Franklin, a civil and women’s rights activist and musician whose songs “Respect” and “Natural Woman” became anthems of social change, Linda Brown, the woman who played a key role in desegregating schools in Brown v. Board of Education and Winnie Mandela, who alongside her husband Nelson Mandela fought to end apartheid in South Africa.
“We also always recognize Patricia Lewis,” Muggeo said.
Lewis, who passed in 1992, was a freedom writer and one of the original founders of the Martin Luther King Jr. march in Albany, Muggeo said.
“We participated in the Albany march in the ’80s and ’90s,” he said. “In 2003 we started one in Catskill.”
The ceremony closed with students and community members of all ages hand in hand singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Columbia County will honor King and his legacy Sunday when the Hudson Interfaith Council presents “One Humanity,” the Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Pre-Holiday Service, from 6 to 8 p.m at the Shiloh Baptist Church, 14 Warren St., Hudson.
Residents, students, choirs and community leaders from across Columbia County and the vicinity come together each year to share in this celebratory memorial.