Local organizations celebrate the life of MLK with art and music
The life and work of the world-renowned human rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated annually on Jan. 21 in the United States. The holiday is commonly associated with his dedication to overcoming racial inequality right up until the day he was assassinated on April 24, 1968 on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. But today, many recognize that his legacy extends to encompass much more than just racial injustice.
While King’s accomplishments include rallying the nation to end racial segregation in schools and his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech calling for an end to racism, the way he pursued his mission in the face of outright hatred and threat of death—using nonviolent action—represents a major facet of his legacy.
This year is the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The anniversary is a reminder that the battle for civil rights in the United States wasn’t all that long ago.
To honor and celebrate King’s life and keep his inspiring messages for creating a better world alive, Santa Cruz County’s Resource Center for Nonviolence and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) will host a celebration featuring live folk, hip-hop and gospel music, workshops on nonviolent demonstration and the power of music for social change, and the opportunity for the community to discuss how King’s messages still have relevance.
The “Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Weekend” will be held at the new RCNV facility at 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, Friday, Jan. 18 through Sunday evening, Jan. 20.
On Sunday, Jan. 20, The Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism (SCCCCOR) will hold a Youth Day activity during the celebration for children to learn about and practice art, music, dance and the spoken word as means for civic engagement.
In conjunction with the festivities, SCCCCOR organized a screening of “The House I Live In,” a film about modern racial inequality in the justice system and the civil rights violations committed against American minorities through the “War on Drugs,” at the Nickelodeon Theatre on Monday, Jan. 21 at 7 p.m.
Professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz Craig Reinarman will lead a discussion after the film about how it relates to civil rights.
The weekend celebration centers primarily around music, says RCNV staff person Anita Heckman. At its core, however, the event highlights and affirms the mission of the RCNV, which is aligned with King’s legacy and the goals he pursued, she says. Their work at the RCNV is based on the theory and practice of nonviolence in the tradition of King and Mahatma Gandhi.
Deborah Hill, the local treasurer for NAACP and event co-organizer, calls King “mankind’s Prince of Peace.”
“If we could put his values into everything we do—from education, to jobs, housing, healthcare and senior care—today’s world would be a much better place,” Hill says.
Heckman says King stood against the military industrial complex, spoke out against the Vietnam War, challenged economic exploitation and worked diligently to change the fundamental structure of society, using nonviolence as his means for social transformation.
“We don’t simply remember King’s life and work on one day or one weekend per year,” Heckman says. “We are constantly examining our work and looking for the most effective ways to promote social change and engage more people in active nonviolence.”
The celebration will feature artists who carry on a tradition of music as a medium for protest, catalyst for change and a way to deliver messages of hope. Participating musicians include folk singer John McCutcheon, local musician Aileen Vance, independent hip-hop artist Abstract Rude and local gospel choirs and soloists.
McCutcheon, whose songwriting aims to be politically and socially conscious, says he discovered and became enamored with folk music when he was 11, while watching the televised “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” that coincided with King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” McCutcheon saw performances by Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, and was deeply moved.
He says he learned the values that he associates with King through folk music.
“One of the great messages that I took away from Martin Luther King is that it’s love that’s going to change the world,” McCutcheon says. “To truly change people’s minds, you have to change their hearts.”
The event brings together a wide range of musical genres that share a message about social justice. During Sunday’s Youth Day, Los Angeles-based hip-hop artist Abstract Rude will run a workshop for aspiring rappers and DJs, featuring a lyrical exchange among participants that he calls “Flow and Tell.” He will perform that evening.
“The whole event is in the spirit of equality and social change,” Rude says. He describes his hip-hop music as a medium to speak out about violence, document urban hardships and portray positive lifestyles.
“Celebrating Martin Luther King is important because, well, we live in a violent world,” Rude says.
King’s message of peace remains as pertinent today as ever, Rude says, referencing high murder rates and gun violence.
“For us to remember him … is to remember the sheer courage that he embodies as a human being—it resonated around the entire world,” he says. “He put his life on the line.”
The people who came into contact with King are quick to recall his powerful presence.
One man who spent a lot of time with King during the ‘60s is Watsonville resident Bob Fitch, though much of that time was spent looking through the lens of his camera.
When Fitch was in his mid 20s, he worked as a civil rights photographer and had a good deal of access to King. His photos appeared in the New York Times and a variety of prominent “Black newspapers” during King’s activism.
“King was a brilliant strategist,” Fitch says. “His charisma was very interpersonal. And he had a brilliant presence.”
He describes King’s capacity to listen quietly to a large group of people passionately and sometimes angrily expressing themselves, and then to calmly and accurately process, distill, and articulate their ideas—to a degree that Fitch recalls as being extraordinary.
Fitch, who worked for the RCNV from 1999 to 2011, will have photos he took of King on display at the celebration.
King’s values and vision had to do with social justice broadly conceived, though during his time the most glaring forms of injustice were racial. But by the time he was murdered, King’s concerns and activism had broadened greatly to embrace poverty and war, says Reinarman, who speculates that King would be a vocal activist against the injustices of today’s “War on Drugs.”
“If you look for a core theme,” Reinarman says of King’s work, “it’s to try and hold America responsible to its ideals. The country has wonderful ideals and King’s ideas were that the country should live up to them.”
Reinarman says that the weekend’s celebration is an opportunity for those who remember King to recommit to creating a more just America. And for people who weren’t around then, it’s a chance to learn more about the King legacy.
The “Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Weekend” will take place Jan. 18-20 at the Resource Center For Nonviolence, 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. 423 1626. “Youth Day” will be Sunday, Jan. 20 from 1 to 5 p.m. Call the NAACP at 429 2266 for more information. A screening of the film The House I Live In, at the Nickelodeon Theatre, followed by a discussion on the War on Drugs, will take place Monday, Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m.