Saluting, Celebrating King and His Message

Times Staff Writer

With parades and speeches, acts of community service and multicultural performances, the life of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is being celebrated this holiday weekend as many reflect on the relevance of his messages today.

About 10,000 spectators lined Martin Luther King Boulevard in central Long Beach on Saturday morning for the city's 15th annual unity parade honoring local pastors and religious leaders who serve the area.

"I think so many people come to a parade like this because Dr. King actually touched the inner hearts and connected with the spirit of people," said one of the honorees, the Rev. James Sanders of Praise Temple Apostolic Church in Long Beach.

More than 125 entries -- community groups, dancers, marching bands and drill teams -- participated in the parade, which culminated with a festival at the city's King Park, events that continue to grow in attendance and participation annually, organizers said.

Other groups throughout the area said King's message of nonviolence is particularly important as the nation stands at the brink of a possible war with Iraq. Several who will speak at commemorative events said that if King were alive today he would be leading protests and speaking out against war, much as he vehemently opposed the Vietnam War.

"He was against violence, period," said Amen Rahh, a professor of African American studies at Cal State Long Beach who will be speaking at a King event Thursday at USC. He said he will discuss how activists today must apply King's message to modern issues such as gang violence, homelessness and vulgar rap.

"He had a desire for people to be more moral, and I think we need to use his nonviolent strategy as an example for today," Rahh said.

In Orange County, several organizations are responding to the 17th anniversary of the King national holiday through community service to the poor. The theme of this year's commemoration, chosen by the King Center in Atlanta, is: "Remember! Celebrate! Act! A day on ... not a day off!"

In Irvine on Monday, more than 200 people will converge at a regional food bank to help pack grocery boxes for needy families and senior citizens.

"We didn't expect that there would be so many volunteers. The outpouring is amazing," said Jerry Sanders, manager of the food bank, part of the Community Action Partnership of Orange County. He said volunteers will work in a parking lot assembly line with the goal of packing up 4,000 boxes of food for later distribution.

Also in Irvine, 400 volunteers will work in fields "crop gleaning," salvaging produce that has ripened since the fields' first harvest. Organizer Sarah Perko said that so many people, especially school-age youth, responded to the call for volunteers that she added a second session.

The produce, mainly from strawberry fields, is donated to food banks.

"This is a good way to reinforce the ideology of Dr. King that everyone can serve," Perko said.

Thalia Laskey of the Athens area near Gardena is helping to honor King through a musical program presented by the L.A. Inner City Mass Choir at New Life Christian Center this evening. Her 16-year-old granddaughter, Amber Laskey, was a member of the choir who was killed in gang cross-fire in 2000. Since then Thalia has devoted much of her time to community work in the spirit of King.

"His life basically symbolizes what I want," Laskey said. "Freedom for children to get their education, and the opportunity for us all to live peacefully; not with all this killing, not with all this gang stuff." The choir will perform at 6 p.m.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, part of a national interfaith organization founded by King in 1957, will mark the holiday with an awards banquet Monday night honoring, among others, Cornel West, professor of Afro-American studies and religion at Princeton University.

Among the largest celebrations Monday will be the Kingdom Day Parade in Los Angeles, an 18-year-old tradition expected to draw about 70,000 spectators.

It has grown over the years from a small community parade to an event that organizer and founder Larry E. Grant said will include thousands of participants in 15 marching bands, 25 drill teams and 20 floats and is televised live on KNBC-TV Channel 4.

Grant, a former bank executive, organized his first King Day parade in San Diego, intent on holding an event that would feature African American role models for youth. "I wanted to get youngsters involved in their education, to get their minds away from hanging out at the corner liquor store," he said.

The parade kicks off at 11 a.m. at Crenshaw and Martin Luther King boulevards.

What pleases Grant most about the Los Angeles parade is the participation of thousands of local youth. "You would be amazed at the respect young people are now showing for Dr. King," he said.

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