Several people bowed their heads as Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice echoed across the plaza in front of Faneuil Hall on Sunday evening. A few in the crowd raised their fists in solidarity as a recording of one of the civil rights activist’s final sermons reminded listeners to prioritize serving others.
“I want you to be first in love,” King’s voice said. “I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”
The gathering of activists in front of Faneuil Hall was one of two events Sunday that contextualized King’s place in a long history ahead of Monday’s pandemic-altered Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Shortly before protestors gathered to listen to King’s speech, the Boston Children’s Chorus opened its annual concert commemorating the holiday with a depiction of the first slave ship carrying African captives to North America.
“I’ve been in the storm so long,” the chorus sang, joining Broadway performer Roman Banks. “Oh give me little time to pray.”
In the prerecorded virtual concert that was broadcast online, the chorus performed mostly spirituals and protest songs colored by commentary from the young singers, contextualizing King’s legacy in a 400-year history.
At the same time as the broadcast, The New Democracy Coalition, an organization that has been calling for the renaming of Faneuil Hall, marked the holiday by gathering a dozen faith leaders to remember King and lend support for the renaming initiative.
“This event goes to the very idea of who Dr. King was even in his final days as he was protesting in Memphis,” said Kevin C. Peterson, founder and director of the organization. “Dr. King was a protester until the time of his death.”
For two years, the coalition has been demonstrating outside the hall — built by and named for one of the wealthiest merchants in 18th-century Boston — because of his links to slavery. Peter Faneuil profited from the slave trade and owned five slaves, according to the National Park Service, which oversees historic sites.
The coalition also honored Fred Gray, a civil rights attorney who is closely associated with King, on Thursday.
“We see this as uniquely linked to King’s idea of fighting for justice,” Peterson said of Sunday’s event in a phone interview before the event.
Peterson explained that the group’s protest over the name of the hall, which he called an “insult to Black people,” was a way to initiate a larger conversation about race, something straight out of King’s playbook, he said.
“Just as King sought to address the symbolism of segregated busing in Montgomery, we simply wanted to use symbolism in the name of Faneuil Hall as a proxy towards addressing systemic racism in the city.”
More than 50 people, all wearing masks, attended the outdoor event at 4 p.m.
The Rev. Josh Wilson of The Table Church in Dorchester said Bostonians have a moral obligation to eliminate social inequalities within the city.
“We’re faced with a crunch when it comes to funding our schools and youth programs, and at the same time we always seem to come up with the money when it comes to tax cuts and military spending, when it comes to the police,” he said.
Several clergy members, like the Rev. Dr. Steve Neville, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Dorchester, mentioned the storming of the US Capitol on Jan. 6. Paraphrasing King’s words, he told the crowd to stay vigilant to racism.
“When we stay awake, we can recover what was lost in prior elections, he said. “We usher in transformation.”
The Rev. Jacob Urena, who is based in Mattapan, told the crowd that renaming Faneuil Hall was a crucial step in honoring not only those people were sold as slaves, but also communities of color who have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m talking about those people who died today because they didn’t have access to health care,” he said.
Other demonstrations were planned in Roxbury for Monday with multiple groups expected to take to the streets while the city’s traditional events go on virtually.
Activists planned to hold a 1 p.m. rally in Grove Hall to call for police accountability and a 3 p.m. march from Madison Park High School to the Massachusetts State House in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Earlier on Monday, the annual MLK Memorial Breakfast plans to honor Boston artist Rob “Problak” Gibbs and the organizations Rosie’s Place and Greater Boston Food Bank at an 11 a.m. ceremony. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and US Representative Ayanna Pressley are expected to be among the speakers.
At noon, Boston University will pay tribute to King, an alumnus, and Coretta Scott King, his wife and fellow activist, in ceremonies featuring Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
And the Museum of Fine Arts planned to have about a dozen nonprofit, corporate, and community leaders speak as part of its hourlong virtual “Voices on King” program beginning at 5 p.m.