HAVERHILL — It was a day at the start of an era many thought would never come.
"Let us pray for this day and a time we thought we'd never see," the Rev. Gregory Thomas, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, said at the start of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast yesterday.
The breakfast took on additional significance this year, held a day before the country's first black president, Barack Obama, was sworn into office.
"Buckle your seat belts and get ready for a journey of a lifetime," said Carole Copeland Thomas, the keynote speaker.
"Great journeys take great people and there is greatness in this room," she said.
Nearly 200 gathered at DiBurro's in Ward Hill to remember the achievements of King, to celebrate the civil rights movement that transformed America, and to recognize the historic nature of the recent election.
The Merrimack Valley branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People holds this annual breakfast to honor King, remember his challenge to treat each other with respect and dignity, and to build a more diverse society.
In his invocation, Thomas said King's beliefs stemmed from his deep faith in God.
"We thank you for the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all he did, those who caught his dream, and the belief that with God, we can do anything," Thomas said.
The Rev. Roger Sawtelle, president of the NAACP's Merrimack Valley branch, talked about the election of Obama as justification for the civil rights movement in America.
"He is the right man for the right job at the right time," Sawtelle said. "In my opinion, the country has a much brighter future today than it ever has."
Copeland Thomas, an author, radio talk show host and leadership consultant, noted this year marks the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, as well as the 62nd anniversary of the Merrimack Valley branch.
She spoke of King's concern for humanity, saying he learned the nonviolent way from Mahatma Ghandi, who led the nonviolent resistance movement against British colonial rule in India during the first half of the 20th century.
"I hope this day and this breakfast you'll remember because it is on the eve of what we could not have imagined five years ago or even one year ago," Copeland Thomas said. "Dr. King would have been 80 years old today. It is time for Barack Obama to take over. We must dream and we must move forward."
During the breakfast, Chelmsford resident Sandra Ann Wilson, vice president and manager of the Billerica branch of Enterprise Bank, received the Bennie Armstrong Award for community service and business excellence. Wilson, 65, is the former treasurer of the Merrimack Valley branch of the NAACP and is now a member of its executive board.
Wilson reminded the crowd that Armstrong came from Lowell and that he was a prominent civil rights activist in the Merrimack Valley area during the 1960s.
Wilson said that when she was 17 and just out of high school, she went to work for New England Telephone, where Armstrong worked. She said Armstrong paved the way for many by breaking down barriers to hiring black and Jewish people.
"My first job was there and it's kind of neat to be receiving this award 48 years later," she told The Eagle-Tribune during the breakfast.
Organized in 1909, the NAACP is the largest and oldest national civil rights group. An advocacy organization, its purpose is to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination and to ensure political, social and economic equality for all people.
The Merrimack Valley branch serves Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill and Methuen and surrounding towns. The branch received its charter in 1946.
AN MLK dAY POEM
Sandra Ann Wilson recited this poem during yesterday's breakfast:
Rosa sat so Martin could walk
Martin walked so Obama could run
Obama ran so our children could fly
Join the discussion. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.