Aminata Diagne sat cross-legged in a campus corridor staring up at the outlines of a new mural.
“WE ARE WHAT WE DO REPEATEDLY,” it said in block letters. “EXCELLENCE IS NOT AN ACT BUT A HABIT.”
The 27-year-old Pasadena resident — one of about 1,000 volunteers who packed a Westchester middle school on Monday for a day-of-service event honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — said it was important for her to spend the day doing something for others. Something tangible, she said, something beyond a cursory recitation of “I Have a Dream.”
“If Dr. King were alive today,” Diagne said, “he would be giving back, not playing his speech over and over.”
The campus beautification effort at Orville Wright STEAM Middle School was one of several events held Monday to honor King, including a clothing drive in Hollywood and an event at the California African American Museum. Also in its 35th year, the Kingdom Day Parade attracted thousands of people to South L.A. to line the 3-mile route and for a music-and-food festival in Leimert Park.
At the event in Westchester, hosted by the volunteer network L.A. Works, a group of boys clustered around former Lakers forward A.C. Green holding their cellphones. A 4-year-old boy stretched out his small hand.
“Hello!” boomed Green, nicknamed Iron Man for playing 1,192 consecutive basketball games.
“Hello, sir,” the boy said, looking back at his mother in disbelief. She nodded and he smiled.
A few minutes later, Bob Johnson, the chairman of L.A. Works, walked onstage to thank the volunteers.
“Dr. King said we can all be great because we can all serve,” he said, before welcoming a moderator to the stage for a panel discussion called “A Seat at the Table,” including Green and several other guests.
“Happy MLK Day!” actress Logan Browning, who starred in the Netflix series “Dear White People,” shouted into the crowd of people, many of whom were shivering and rubbing their hands together with the temperature hovering in the mid-50s. “It’s cold, but you made it!”
During the discussion, the moderator asked Green if he could recall a specific person who changed the trajectory of his life.
As a freshman in high school, Green said he’d been a D student with low self-esteem, but during his sophomore year, a history teacher approached him outside the library and told him that he saw great potential in him. If he focused, the teacher said, he could achieve big dreams.
“A four-minute conversation that changed my life,” he said.
Another panelist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University, told the crowd that she was 10 years old when King was assassinated in 1968. The next day, Crenshaw recalled, she and several other students were corralled into a church, where volunteers asked them if they had anything they wanted to share about King.
The room fell silent.
“It was killing me,” Crenshaw said, and before she had thought of what she’d say, she vaulted from her seat and started rambling things that, in retrospect, she realizes may have sounded trite.
“We must follow his footsteps,” Crenshaw remembers saying, adding that, in the years since, much of her research has been guided by King’s legacy. To understand life in America today, Crenshaw told the crowd, everyone should study history — the history of public education, of housing, of the parts of King’s legacy that often get overlooked.
“I dream of a world,” Crenshaw said, “where the promises made to all of us are actually realized.”
A few minutes later, the school’s assistant principal Darryl Davis Jr. ran onstage and welcomed the crowd to a campus he’d first entered more than a decade ago as an English teacher. About 80% of the school’s 700 students are bused in from South L.A. to Westchester, he said.
After walking off the stage, Davis peered out over the campus, pointing at its beige, low-slung buildings. He sighed.
“It’s reminiscent of a juvenile detention center,” he said.
In recent years, Davis and some teachers did their best to spruce up the campus — they painted the logos of several historically black colleges and universities on the walls to encourage students to dream of their futures. But on Monday, Davis beamed as he considered that, once the event was over, his school would have dozens of new murals, new wood benches, a fresh coat of baby blue paint on the lockers and new lines painted onto the basketball courts.
“It does something to you,” Davis said of a campus with a face-lift. “It makes you say, ‘I can do this.’ It speaks to your spirit.”
Nearby, a group of young girls stood in a circle sharing their reasons for volunteering.
“To help people.”
“To help clean up.”
“So no one gets hurt.”
“To help our environment grow.”
As the group dispersed, Paige Griffith, 7, rested her chin in her hand, still considering why the day was important to her. She peeked down at her T-shirt that read “Black is Beautiful.”
“So people can have equal rights,” she said. “A special day to remember a special person.”