By Maddy Vitale
A deep, resounding voice came from the back of the room at the Bill and Nancy Hughes Performing Arts Center at Ocean City High School, where crowds gathered to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy.
Then, keynote speaker Rev. Gregory Johnson, of Shiloh Baptist Church, made his way to the stage. He captured the attention of the hundreds of people who were all there to listen to the message of Dr. King during Ocean City’s 28th annual celebration.
“How long? Not long,” Johnson assured the crowd.
He spoke about his grandmother and her teachings that one must respect others. The struggles people may face will be difficult, but there will be rewards, Johnson said.
“Sometimes, we feel like we are hurting on the inside,” he said. “Faith unlocks the door. Hold on a little while longer.”
The theme of racial equality and peace flowed throughout the ceremony. The words of King, his message of hope, resonated with those who spoke on his day.
Johnson noted that King made it a point to include everyone. King wanted to help everyone. Those are the keys to a fulfilling life.
He then recited King’s epic “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963.
The Freedom Singers from Stockton University, under the direction of Beverly Vaughn, brought the audience members to their feet as strangers, family and friends held hands, swayed and sang in unison to “We Shall Overcome,” which served as the anthem of America’s civil rights movement.
Mayor Jay Gillian could not attend the ceremony, so Director of Community Services Michael Allegretto spoke on his behalf. He thanked the community for being there and remembering King.
“Many different people make up our town. But we all share a love of Ocean City,” Allegretto said. “I know the mayor has a favorite quote of Dr. King’s, ‘We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.’”
He continued, “My hope, and the mayor’s hope for 2019, is for all members of our community to continue to work together to make Ocean City a better place for all. And my hope is that we will not succumb to the divisions and fear in the world around us, but stand, as Dr. King did, against forces ruled by hatred.”
Cape May County Freeholder E. Marie Hayes reminded the crowd of an important part of King’s message: “A person should be judged by their character, not their color,” she said to applause.
In addition to King, important people in the community were recognized for the good that they do each and every day.
Ocean City resident Sally Onesty, who lost her son, Tyler, to drugs in 2017, received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award for her support of individuals and families battling the effects of addiction.
Melissa Wilson, Onesty’s longtime friend, was one of the people who nominated her for the award.
Wilson stood at the podium and pointed out so many reasons why Onesty deserved the honor. She said Onesty has truly helped bring to light the drug addiction problems young people face throughout the country, the county and in Ocean City.
When Onesty’s son overdosed, she did not hide, Wilson explained.
She took her grief and began a mission to help other families whose loved ones face addiction and also to give guidance to the young people who are struggling with the disease of addiction.
“She is a brave woman,” Wilson noted.
Wiping away a tear, Onesty urged the community to help someone who appears to be in trouble.
“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve,” she said. “Next time you see someone who looks hopeless, lost, they probably are.”
She said the best thing to do is call someone for help.
Other dignitaries, including Cape May County Freeholder Jeffrey Pierson, also showed their appreciation for Onesty and her work.
“Sally, I personally know loss. In 2015, my grandson committed suicide. You are committed to this community,” Pierson said.
During the ceremony, honors were also given to two students from the Ocean City Intermediate School for their winning essays about what King means to them.
James Burke, a seventh grade student, read his essay about how he tries to live by the ways of King, to be kind to everyone.
“Dr. King had a fire in his eye, a fire in his soul,” James said. “I am trying to find that fire in me.”
He added that he hopes to one day change the world for the better, as King did.
Ethan Meron, an eighth grade student, told the crowd that he strives to do what is right, just as King did in his lifetime.
King was about justice and equality. King’s views are enough to remind everyone to do what is right, Ethan said.
Ocean City Council members, Ocean City Schools Superintendent Kathleen Taylor and School Board President Joseph Clark, Cape May County Freeholders, civic leaders and other dignitaries filled the stage and the audience.
Among other officials in attendance were Cape May County Sheriff Bob Nolan, former U.S. Ambassador and Congressman Bill Hughes and Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland.
After the ceremony, a soul food luncheon was served. People lined up for generous portions of chicken, greens, macaroni and cheese and desserts.
Tammy Ackley, of Vineland, and her children, James Penn, 16, Tamia Gerald, 5, and David Gerald, 7, come to the celebration every year.
Tamia said she liked the singing the best. David liked the music the most.
“My mother-in-law lives in Ocean City,” Ackley said. “We come every year because it is just beautiful. It is so moving and every year it gets better and better.”