Annual tribute honors legacy of civil-rights leader

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Rabbi Allen Secher at his home in Whitefish. Secher and Erica von Kleist have partnered for the annual Love Lives Here celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., tonight at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The annual Love Lives Here celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. is happening tonight at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. Once again the event will be hosted by Rabbi Allen Secher and Erica von Kleist. It is free to attend, but donations will be accepted in the lobby for those who want to contribute.

Featured speaker is Wilmot Collins, mayor of Helena, who is the first black mayor in Montana and a former refugee from Liberia.

Love Lives Here is partnering with Groovetrail and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy alumni, who have traveled to the Flathead Valley from New York. They will perform with the members of the Flathead Ellington Project at the event.

Secher has been involved with organizing the event for a decade, and he still exudes passion for the annual nod to King’s legacy. Part of this passion comes from his own history of activism during the Civil Rights era. On June 18, 1964, he was one of 16 rabbis who were arrested in St. Augustine, Florida, for taking part in the civil rights protests there. Secher was 29 years old. It was the largest mass-arrest of rabbis in U.S. history.

“I have an enormous fear that racism is increasing in this country,” Secher said. “I’m still rattled from the personal attacks of two years ago. We need to hear King’s message and to receive it indelibly printed in our souls.”

Secher got to meet the Rev. Martin Luther King a few times. The first was in October 1962.

“There is a sense of the awesome you feel when you are in the presence of such greatness,” Secher said. “I cannot remember exactly what we talked about, but I remember his voice; it was rich.

“If you were engrossed in what he was saying and already akin to his message, then your vow to do whatever was possible became even more expansive. If, however, you were so inclined to be a racist, most often you just shut yourself off to him.”

As Secher attempted to explain King’s effect, he said ‘heavenly’ is the wrong term. “Witnessing King was witnessing one of the world’s beloved. You come away from it experiencing a spiritual high.

“For example, there was a time when King was speaking to us rabbis and the locals for an hour. You didn’t walk out of that place, you flew!” he recalled.

The gift of King to those he inspired was to convince them of the rightness of the cause and of the importance of their individual role within it.

With these poignant memories, Secher goes into another celebration doing his part to keep the message alive today.

“If some people can walk away from the evening and turn to Love Lives Here and say, ‘what can I do?’ or ask themselves, ‘can I play more of a part in creating a better world,’ then Erica and I will have succeeded beyond our expectations.”

Photojournalist Brenda Ahearn may be reached at 758-4435 or bahearn@dailyinterlake.com.

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