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Local Leaders Reflect on Lessons of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ahead of MLK Day

Published on Thursday, January 14, 2021 | 5:12 pm
One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visits to Friendship Baptist Church in Old Pasadena. (Photo courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History/Pasadena Digital History Collaboration)

Pasadena community and civic leaders are urging the public to not only commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr., this Monday on the federal holiday bearing his name but also to take his messages of unity and equality to heart during a highly divisive time in American politics and society at large.

State Rep. Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, recalled meeting King as a child.

“I was only 5 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to preach at the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena in 1965. I remember the crowds and the electricity in the air. And I remember my mother saying she was going to shake his hand,” he said.

“With patience and perseverance and maybe a little pushing, we reached Dr. King and she shook his hand while holding mine in the other. I felt the electricity run through me as sure as if there was a circuit,” Holden said.

“Dr. King believed in empowering all people and challenged them to help their neighbors and communities do better,” he said. “Even now, years after his death, his contribution to developing a more equal society, one where all Americans have the opportunity to succeed, remains unmatched.”

Holden said the lessons and legacy of King should not be relegated to a single day, but at the forefront of the minds of civic leaders year-round.

“Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is important, and it’s important to live by his example every day,” Holden said. “The divisions that we see today existed before Trump and before this pandemic. Communities of color experience it in a real way on a daily basis, not just through overt racism but through systemic racism that makes it harder to get a job, move on up within their job, build equity, and so on.”

But the pandemic has served to highlight those injustices, he said.

“In this pandemic, we are seeing disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected, whether directly through higher cases, hospitalizations, and deaths or indirectly through lower education quality due to lack of resources,” he said. “Issues that were once harder to see now have more of a spotlight on them, and in some ways it’s really helping people understand why we need to pass policies that bring systemic change to our state and country.”

“That is what my colleagues and I in the legislature have been working towards, and what folks protesting on the street or voting at the ballot box are calling for,” Holden continued. “There’s been a lot of negative attention to what is happening nationally, but here in California, we are making real progress — just last year Gov. Newsom signed my bill, AB 979, to mandate diversity on corporate boards based in California. I think it’s important to not just remember and celebrate Dr. King on his day, but to do the necessary work to make change at the local, state, and national efforts — and that collective effort is the best way to honor him.”

Pasadena MLK Community Coalition Vice president Christopher Walker agreed that modern society could take a lesson from King’s message of unity.

“I think the fact that we can look back at the March on Washington, the work that was done in the sixties to improve not only the opportunities and situations for people of color, but it was also an opportunity to bring people of all walks of life together,” he said. “If you remember those pictures, it’s not all Blacks in those pictures; there are white people, Latino people. Everybody came together because it was the right thing to do.”

“Now, you fast forward 40 years later. It’s almost like the opposite picture is being painted and followed through on as far as coming together, unity, appreciating thy neighbor, and his kids,” Walker said. “This relates to race and also relates to COVID.”

“Love thy neighbor, look out for the other man or the other woman,” he said. “You have people debating wearing masks in public. But hopefully, in your heart, you will say, ‘Hey, you know what? I can help that next person because we’re in this together.’ That’s not happening right now. And it’s very unfortunate that is not happening.”

NAACP Pasadena President Allen Edson said despite the negativity and decisiveness all around, “I’m always positive in how I do things. So it’s a time of great opportunity to see if we can really seize the moment of things that were revealed in this country and sentiments of people in this country.”

“We’re a divided country, and we’ve gotta be able to try to unite this country in a positive way,” Edson said. “This country has got to get back down to some fundamentals about morality. And that’s something that I hope to see.”

He echoed King’s call to action and aversion to complaisance in the face of social injustice.

“There’s a lot of work to do,  and the more voices that participate in that work by becoming civically engaged, the better,” Edson said. “We’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm from young people, but we need to take that enthusiasm and channel it into some positive activities that we see are needed.”

“A lot of that comes from participating in the political process. Whatever your interests may be, there’s room for you,” he said. “You’ve just got to find a niche for yourself and get busy.”

It can be frustrating to see society still dealing with many of the same issues as decades ago in 2021, Edson said.

“It’s tragic to me to see that it seems like every voting season, we’re always trying to make sure that the Voting Rights Act stays intact. Just something as simple as that,” he said.

“But again, this isn’t something to be depressed about,” he said. “It’s about opportunity, and for me, opportunity means happiness. We’ve got to think a little differently.”

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