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At the grass-roots level, Bostonians honor Dr. King

Edna Thompson stood up and sang along during the opening song and prayer at the Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast event at Prince Hall in Dorchester.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Edna Thompson stood up and sang along during the opening song and prayer at the Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast event at Prince Hall in Dorchester.

In a fluorescent-lit Dorchester hall, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy burned bright for more than three hours Monday during a homespun celebration of the late Baptist preacher and civil rights activist.

About 175 people filled Prince Hall Grand Lodge, a Masonic temple on Washington Street, where they ate kielbasa, grits, eggs, and other home cooking prepared in a downstairs kitchen.

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“I enjoy every minute of doing this,” said Lillie Sumpter, 73, over the sound of kielbasa sizzling in a pan. “Dr. King means everything to me. He was a role model for so many. I am just so happy to be able to honor him, because of all the good that he did.”

Sumpter is among the many volunteers who help run the Martin Luther King community breakfast, held for the past 23 years with support from four area churches.

The leader of one of those churches urged all to embrace King’s commitment to nonviolence and racial equality.

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“Dr. King was a visionary,” said the Rev. Thomas Williams, pastor of Holy Temple Church in Roxbury. “He envisioned a nation that would not have racial segregation, that would not bring judgment or condemnation based on one’s race, color, or creed.”

On the day set aside to honor his birth, King was remembered in scripture and song, readings, and reflections. Young and old raised their hands in joyful celebration of the martyred minister from Atlanta, who earned a doctorate at Boston University.

“He helped to end segregation,” Mia Moore, age 9, a third-grader from Mattapan, said of King. “He gave people freedom.”

The community celebration for King was first held in 1991, and was planned to create an affordable option for families. Food donated by businesses and churches helps to keep costs low.

Tickets this year cost $15 per person, compared to $50 per person charged to attend the city’s annual MLK breakfast, which drew the state’s top political and business leaders to the convention center in South Boston.

“We want families to be able to come out, so that their children can learn about Dr. King,” said Arnold Murphy, 50, a Dorchester native who helped establish the breakfast 23 years ago.

Organizers award scholarships through a program named for the late Bishop Nellie C. Yarborough, a pastor of Mount Calvary Holy Church in Dorchester. College juniors or seniors who attend one of the four supporting churches can apply, but no eligible candidates came forward this year, Murphy said.

Diandra Jones, who emceed Monday’s breakfast, received a $300 scholarship in 2009. “It helped a lot with buying books,” said Jones, 28,serving fried salmon cakes to people waiting in the buffet line.

Some youngsters munched on doughnuts, while others colored pictures of King in a book. They stood attentively to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,’’ the song popularly known as the “Negro National Anthem,’’ reading from the words printed on the program.

“Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring . . . Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” they sang.

“It’s a powerful hymn,” said the Rev. Sheryl Mann, a former pastor at Grace Tabernacle Church in Malden, who brought along her son, Jeremiah Sneed, 7. “I wanted him to experience singing it in honor of Dr. King.”

Sneed wore a gray pinstripe suit to his first Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast. “He changed a lot of things,” the second-grader said, pausing between bites of scrambled eggs.

George and Norrisa Williams traveled from Brockton to attend the breakfast for the first time with their 12-year-old nephew and his friend, 11.

“It’s important for kids to know that this is not just a day off from school,” said Norrisa, 50. “It’s important that they knew who Dr. King was and what he stood for.”

Kathy McCabe
can be reached at katherine.mccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.
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