Just hours before the country's first black president was to take the oath of office for his second term, Deacon Eric Gray addressed a group of Island residents at the First Baptist Church Parish Hall in Vineyard Haven. "We are here to celebrate the birthday of an African American who has had a national holiday set aside in his memory," he said. "That's powerful. That's powerful."
Mr. Gray, a deacon at the People's Baptist Church in Boston, was invited to speak at the church's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebratory breakfast by the Rev. Ellen Tatreau, whose husband is a long-time friend of Mr. Gray's.
But while the deacon recognized the significance of both celebrations — especially their occurance on the same day — he advised the assembled group that "today can also be a dangerous day."
Community members listened intently as Mr. Gray spoke about the need for the nation to continue to push toward eliminating not just racism, but all "isms."
"We are not at the point yet where all of us can enjoy true freedom, true equality, true liberty," he said. "Individuals have been able to rise above the 'isms' in this country, but the question is: where are the masses? I believe that is the true measure of where we are in society."
Noting the high voter turnout in this year's presidential election, Mr. Gray said he would like to see the same sort of effort called forth to eliminate prejudice.
"If we don't show the same determination to bring down the scourge of racism, then today is just one day of celebration," he said. "Yes, we have made progress, but we have not reached the mountaintop."
In his inauguration speech, President Barack Obama echoed the message that Mr. Gray shared with Islanders.
"We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," said the president.
"Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth."
Fifty years ago Dr. King delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington. "I wonder what he would say today," said Rev. Tatreau, "as he looks over what he called his 'beloved community'?"