MLK Jr. Day draws crowd

In a two-day extravaganza, for the 15th year in a row, the Yale Peabody Museum honored Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend.

The festival, “Dr. King’s Legacy of Environmental & Social Justice,” drew more than 5,000 people, Peabody Event Organizer Josue Irizarry said. Local artists performed and activist organizations such as CitySeed set up tables to reach out to Connecticut residents and raise awareness about social and environmental justice issues that disproportionately affect African Americans.

Yale Peabody Museum

Filling the museum, attendees of all ages sang and danced together, participated in a poetry slam, and made arts and crafts to celebrate King’s life. Laughing children — and a few crying ones — who didn’t want to leave the black hole exhibit or put on their coats, simultaneously commemorated the legacy of civil rights and soaked up natural history.

The main theme of this year’s gathering was non-violence, Irizarry said.

“What with the recent shooting [of Sen. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)] and bullying that goes on in schools, we thought it would be appropriate,” he added. “It’s especially effective because so many children and families come this weekend.”

Last year, the event focused on health care reform, and Irizarry said this year’s event drew more people than ever before.

“They’ve outgrown this space — they need a bigger venue for this thing,” said Marie Baskerville, who said she has been coming to the festival for several years.

On folding tables around the room in the museum’s Great Hall of the Dinosaurs, organizations and agencies offered information or activities for attendees. New Haven Reads had free children’s books laid out for kids to take home, allowing one per child. Sheila Greenstein, a member of the organization, said that books about Martin Luther King, Jr. were popular and went quickly, as well as one that featured the Obama family.

Nine-year-old Thomas Stachen lingered over the selection before picking out the picture book “Too Much of a Good Thing,” which he said he would read to his 5-year-old sister. Greenstein estimated that they gave out 1,700 books over the two-day period.

The skeleton of a brontosaurus towered over the scene on the museum’s first floor, as the drumming group New Haven-based Kouffin Kanecke Company performed traditional West African music and dance. The group brought colorful egg-shakers that they handed out so the crowd could join in.

Jane Bernoudy of New London, Conn., brought her grandson and great-grandson, Anthony and Jarmany, to the Peabody for the festivities.

“They’re old enough to understand what Martin Luther King, Jr. was about,” she said. “Of all the events, they liked the break dancing the best. They were out there on the floor.”

Bernoudy said she sometimes celebrated the holiday by marching from city hall to church, adding that she might bring her grandchildren to the walk in the future.

On the second floor of the Peabody, in the Discovery Room, 3-year-old Ausene Morrison-Feaster gravitated toward the sea sponge and other museum artifacts that he was allowed to touch, such as a cast of a dinosaur egg and a T-Rex tooth. His mother, Roslyn Morrison, said he was still too young to understand the significance of the day.

“He thinks this is very cool and fun, but this is just another day for him,” she said. “In a way, that is a testament to how far we’ve come. But we still have a long way to go.”

Museum staff worker Heidi Herrick held the rope for the long line of families waiting to get into the Discovery Room.

“This is actually my day off,” she said. “But President Obama called for a day of service, so I came in to volunteer anyway. This event always brings an enormous amount of energy to the museum.”

At a table for the organization People’s World, volunteers collected over a hundred signatures on a petition asking congress to prioritize job creation and extend unemployment aid.

Organizer Joelle Fishman encouraged children to write down and draw pictures of what they want to be when they grow up, telling them that King wants them to “dream big.”

“We get a lot of astronauts, doctors, nurses, teachers, firemen — they want to help people,” she said. “We also got some paleontologists. The space might have something to do with that.”

The event was sponsored by Citizens Bank, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs and local businesses.

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