Group Marks 40th Anniversary of King Assassination

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 04, 2008

Posted Sat., April 5—A small but dedicated crowd turned up to mark the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination by reading aloud his Letter from a Birmingham Jail at the downtown Berkeley Public Library on Friday. The event coincided with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council's National Day of Nonviolence, started nine years ago by the organization's former director Jamal Bryant to encourage youth to fight against community violence.  

"Back in 1999, there was an increase in violence, brought about by the shootings of artists such as Tupac and Biggie," said Berkeley NAACP youth council advisor Denisha DeLane. "I remember being at the table when we created the day of non-violence, and almost a decade later, violence still lives and breathes. Attacks on Liberation Theology and what Rev. Jeremiah Wright said at the pulpit scare me. He doesn't have to be everybody's pastor but he's somebody's pastor. People are hurting, they feel rejected."  

DeLane said that Dr. King's letter, written in 1963, dealt with issues plaguing society that persist today. "Violence, crime, misogyny, sexism—it's still out there," she said. "Shootings and stabbings have increased in South Berkeley. One of my former classmates was shot by a young man in Berkeley two weeks ago. Unfortunately, we find ourselves gathering at the site of funerals and it's not until the next funeral that we have another dialogue again." Community leaders and local clergymen took turns reading from King's letter, which was a rebuttal to a statement made by eight white clergymen from Alabama. In response to their belief that the battle against racial segregation was meant to be fought in the courts and not in the streets, King said was that civil rights could not be won without forceful, direct actions. "This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never,'" he wrote.  

"And people are still telling us to wait today," Berkeley councilmember Kriss Worthington told the Planet after the reading. "It's a very powerful message. Sometimes social movements of the past can get people involved in social changes of today. Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement won some victories but the struggle still continues. America is not anywhere close to equality and fairness."  

Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA) lead organizer Belen Pulido-Martinez said that the community had to take the first step to bring about change.  

"I work with young people from Berkeley High School who are involved in gang activities and violence," she said. "I don't think we need more police, I think we need more after-school activities, a safe place for them to go and do something constructive. How come in Berkeley we have three senior centers and not even one youth center?"  

Several meetings with Mayor Tom Bates and the city's Parks and Recreation Department led to BOCA youth getting a small space at the West Berkeley Senior Center for themselves. PG&E recently donated a building downtown to the Berkeley YMCA for a teen center, scheduled to open next year.  

"We need more stuff like that," Pulido-Martinez said. "We need a place for girls of color to go and dance for free. It's something they love to do but can't afford to pay for." Rev. Byron Williams, pastor of the Resurrection Community Church in Berkeley, echoed her thoughts.  

"The hopelessness that was there when Dr. King died is pervasive even today," he said. "People marched, people bled, they took on police dogs, they got civil rights legislation, but the economic condition put them in a second class citizenship. Our current economic situation makes things just the same. It's good to have the right to vote and fair housing, but what good is fair housing when you can't afford it?"  

Jamaul Thomas, who had been trying to sell his R&B CDs outside the library gates, followed Rev. Williams to the reading.  

"It's hard," Thomas, 22, said. "When young people don't have anything to do, they will find something to do. And more often than not, it's bad things. What we lack today is a role model, somebody to guide us through times."