MANCHESTER - It was said many times at St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral yesterday: Martin Luther King Jr. wanted people to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
The country has come a long way since the days of King, especially in the candidates for president. A woman and a black man are two leading contenders.
In the fight for the White House, race does seem to matter among Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Clinton is trying to recruit votes from blacks, which helped her husband win the presidency. But she's also miffed some blacks by saying that President Lyndon Johnson and government action, not King, were responsible for civil rights being enacted for blacks.
When New Hampshire voters of different cultures gathered yesterday to celebrate King's birthday, many agreed that race does not matter to them when it comes to the next president. In fact, they said having a woman who is serious about being president also fits into King's dream.
Two weeks ago, people were given the chance to vote for a woman, a Hispanic or a black candidate in the state's first-in-the-nation primary, Gov. John Lynch told the crowd yesterday.
"I'd like to think they didn't notice, but focused on the quality of the individual," Lynch said. "That's what MLK wanted."
Lynch's speech echoed what some people said during interviews at a luncheon preceding the event presented by the Martin Luther King Coalition.
Sister May Cronin, a member of the Sisters of Mercy in Windham, said informed voters won't cast their choices based on whether they are ready for a black president.
"I hope we've gone beyond that," she said. "It's about who is most qualified."
Casey Blais of Londonderry said regardless of whether Obama wins, the fact he is in the presidential race still means progress is being made.
"It's time for a black candidate to make a big, big showing," she said.
Karen Hagan, also of Londonderry, quickly followed up Blais' comments, saying it also is time for a woman to make a showing.
The issue of race doesn't matter to Jeanette Caynon of Pelham.
"I don't care what color he is," she said of Obama.
Others in attendance weren't as confident that color does not matter to voters, although they said it didn't to them.
Mohamed Atabani, who moved to Manchester 20 years ago from Sudan, said he saw Obama a couple of times last year and liked him.
"He'll be OK," he said. "But I don't know if it's time for a black president. People aren't that open-minded yet."
Bobby Appel, a Manchester resident formerly of Lawrence, Mass., said he isn't sure the nation is ready to elect Obama president because not everyone looks beyond gender and race.
"It's going to take a lot of goodwill," Appel said. "It's about being open-minded with your heart because (the country is) in trouble now."
Electing a black president would send the right message to the rest of the world, Appel said. He called Obama a "uniter" and said that although Obama is not Muslim, he would have a better chance of negotiating peace in the Middle East.
Dr. Marie Metoyer, yesterday's Martin Luther King Award recipient, volunteered with Obama's campaign in New Hampshire and is excited about his place in the race. The Manchester woman received the award for work she's done in the state to promote racial equality among all cultural groups.
"I think it's great that we've reached a point where a black man is a serious candidate for the presidency," Metoyer said.
But there also were Clinton campaign workers in attendance, including Frank Weaver, who also is known as Miss Toni, Clinton's New Hampshire gay bisexual lesbian transgender coordinator.
Weaver met King while a student at Syracuse University. Weaver said seeing King's courage gave the former Lawrence resident the courage to make a life change.
"This universal man walked through the door and bang! Silence," Weaver said. "You knew your life would be different."
Now, 40 years later, Weaver said if Clinton or Obama becomes president, either would make a big difference in the lives of Americans as King once did.
"I like all of the Democrats," Weaver said. "You are going to see changes you wouldn't believe with any of them."