The community turned out in force Monday to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., filling the nearly 700 seats of the Historic Ashland Armory. Others watched a live simulcast in the Varsity Theatre. Event coordinators estimated around 1,000 people attended.
The 31st annual Ashland celebration featured a melting pot of musical and spoken word performances, including the Ashland High School Jazz Band, the Bishop Mayfield Band and the Walker Elementary choir.
Keynote speaker Kamilah Long, director of leadership gifts at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and originally from Montgomery, Alabama, began her address with a poem written by her mother titled “Africa.”
Long spoke of experiences she’s had in Montgomery, such as thinking she heard Dr. King give his “I Have a Dream” speech as a young child. She spoke of weeping silently as she strolled through the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, otherwise known as the Lynching Memorial, when it opened last April.
Then she repeated something said to her long ago.
“What if the key is not starting something, but stopping something?” Long asked. “What can you stop doing right now that supports injustice?”
She paused as she looked at the room and then addressed all of the African-Americans present.
“To all of the black folks in the building, and especially the black youth, Dr. King had this to say to you: Believe in yourself, and believe that you are somebody,” Long said. “You don’t have to be ashamed of your heritage, you don’t have to be ashamed of your color, you don’t have to be ashamed of your hair. Black is as beautiful as any color.
“And to all the youths in the building, Dr. King had this to say to you,” Long said. “Don’t you allow anybody to pull you so low to make you hate them and don’t you allow anybody to cause you to lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice.”
The crowd roared for Long.
The audience cheered on Crater Lake High Senior Emme Herring, too, as she delivered an original poem she wrote.
“The color of my skin doesn’t determine the issues I get to care about,” Herring said.
Freedom Rider John Dolan attended the event and said that, due to recent racial crimes around the country, celebrations like this are needed more than ever.
Rogue Valley Peace Choir Director Rob Griswell-Lowry received shouts of approval when he said that Dr. King visited Berlin in 1964 “and made it very clear that walls do not unite us.”
“The power of the people is stronger than the people in power,” the choir sang.
And as the Walker Elementary choir exited the stage, master of ceremonies D.L. Richardson pointed at the kids and said, “Those are the people that we need to take care of.”
Richardson, originally from Selma, Alabama, works with the Ashland and Medford school districts as an equity consultant giving African-American students a voice and a familiar face while educating teachers on subjects such as implicit bias.
He said it’s especially important for African-American children to have authoritative figures in their lives who look like them. He said Ashland has one African-American police officer and Medford has none, plus most teachers in the Rogue Valley are Caucasian women. He said if an African-American child has at least one African-American teacher by third grade, that child’s chances of graduating high school increase nearly 35 percent.
“It’s such minor things, some teachers might not realize are happening, that can set a child back years,” Richardson said. He said it’s not an intentional practice, but how can a white person who’s never been victimized in that way see it?
Event coordinator Gina DuQuenne said there’s still so much work to be done.
“When Trayvon Martin died and I had to give that talk to my children and my grandchildren, I was heartbroken,” DuQuenne said. “When can we stop giving those talks to our children?”
After Ashland High School and Southern Oregon University Black Student Unions collectively read aloud Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again,” they led the attendees on a march to the Plaza to listen to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Along with the students, leading the march were civil rights activists Geneva Craig, Ph.D., and Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe.
Lilleboe is the daughter of Viola Liuzzo, one of the only Caucasian women to be remembered as vividly as she is in the civil rights movement of Selma, Alabama. Liuzzo traveled from Detroit, Michigan, to help Dr. King during what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Her job was to shuttle people to and from the attempt to march across the bridge in Selma. She was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan while returning from a shuttle trip.
“I carry on her work,” Lilleboe said. “When President Obama was elected, we knew everything — the blood, the pain, the tears and my mother’s life weren’t in vain. One of the foundations of Dr. King’s teaching is that we must teach people to see each other as human beings and that’s the key to reconciliation.”
Craig was also in attendance at Bloody Sunday. She was a “foot soldier,” she said.
“I went to jail multiple times, I was threatened with reform school, I’ve been cattle-prodded and tear-gassed by participating in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama,” Craig said. “I was present each time that we attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, when we were attacked by the officers, I was at the very foot of the bridge and I had my younger brother with me, who was 13 at the time.”
“Dr. King saved my life,” Craig said. “I was willing to die for what I believed in.”
Craig said she was a teenager seething with rage about the injustice her family had suffered for generations and she wasn’t alone. She said there were so many people furious at the injustices thrown at them decade after decade and that it all was about to boil over, then King brought structure, organization and, above all, compassion to their cause.
“We’ve made great strides, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Craig said. “When will the black mothers not have to worry that our black sons won’t be targeted? It is a continuation of educating each other and it must never stop.”
DuQuenne said the colors of the human race make up a tapestry woven throughout history.
“We must learn to celebrate our differences,” DuQuenne said.