Civil discourse is crucial to civil rights fight, speaker says

Social justice advocate Magdaleno Rose-Avila called on the crowd of 800 gathered at Ashland's Martin Luther King celebration Monday to fight not only for civil rights, but also for civil discourse in the hope of avoiding tragedies such as the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz.

"The theme of this event is 'Civil Rights and Civil Discourse,' and it comes as the right message at the right time "…," he said. "It did not surprise me, the violence that surfaced in Tucson, Arizona."

Rose-Avila, executive director of the Social Justice Fund in Seattle, also called for more mental health services and better gun control in light of the Jan. 8 shooting, which killed six and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

He joined city officials, Oregon Shakespeare Festival performers and students from Southern Oregon University and the Ashland School District in celebrating Ashland's 23rd Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Historic Ashland Armory.

"I think Dr. King would be glad to see us using his birthday as a way to celebrate civil rights in our community, instead of just sitting in our houses," said SOU senior Austin Richardson, who performed at the event with the university's Black Student Union Step Team. "We can always do more, but I think the point of the holiday is to get out and be active in the community and people are doing that as we speak."

The event also featured performances by David and Gabe Young, Liquid Fire Mantra, Las Colibri and Walker Elementary School's Wolf Pack choir.

Monday's gathering marked the end of a weeklong celebration in Southern Oregon of King's life. Ashland High School held an assembly Wednesday, the district's elementary schools marched in a parade Friday and Medford held an event Sunday to mark the birthday of the slain civil rights leader.

"It's very interesting to learn about what he did," said Taylor Kelly, a fifth-grade student at John Muir School who volunteered at Monday's event. "It's really cool that he helped free people and get freedom for people to be equal."

Following the Armory event, the Lotus Rising Project's Teen Theater led the crowd on a march to the Plaza to listen to King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

The speech resonated with the teens in the Lotus Rising Project, a gay rights and social justice group, said Ashland High School sophomore Griffin Hadden.

"It's very symbolic," she said. "It's not just about racial issues, but about acceptance of all."

If King were alive today, he would be advocating for the equal rights of gay, immigrant, homeless and Muslim people, as well as for the protection of the environment, Rose-Avila said.

"I think sometimes progress has a way of taking two steps forward and one step backward, and sometimes to the side," he said in an interview. "I think Dr. King would be proud of what he found but still dismayed about the lack of civil discourse that's come out in the last few years."

The day after King was assassinated in 1968, Rose-Avila delivered his first civil rights speech, telling his colleagues at the University of Colorado that King's dream would live on through them.

Forty-three years later, Rose-Avila is still speaking about King's dream.

"Dr. King taught us that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter," he told the crowd Monday.

At the end of Monday's gathering, Southern Oregon resident Natalie Tyler spoke about her memories of marching with King in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

"We kept marching and singing, 'We shall overcome,'" she said.

Tyler echoed Rose-Avila's call for injecting more civility into the nation's dialogue about political and civil rights issues.

"We've come a long way but there's still all that hate talk," she said. "What happened in Arizona wouldn't have happened if we still had Dr. King."

Video of the event is available online at www.ashlandhome.us.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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