A small but dedicated crowd came to Jefferson Elementary School in North Berkeley early Monday morning to make the short trek over to King Middle School for Berkeley’s first-ever march to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday—at least in recent history.
More than 250 students and their parents gathered in King’s auditorium to honor one of the greatest civil rights activists who was killed 41 years ago in Memphis, Tenn., and spoke about their dreams and aspirations for their family and their country, something Dr. King had also talked about in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. King would have been 80 years old this year.
The confluence of the federal holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday with the eve of the inauguration of a black man as the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, made the occasion even more special for those who attended.
Middle schoolers carried posters of Dr. King and Obama standing side by side while parents held “I Have a Dream” and “Yes We Can!” placards on both hands.
Every speech, every anecdote either started or ended with the new president’s name, and talked about how he had brought hope to the lives of millions.
“Dr. King to Barack Obama,” said Ann Williams, vice-president of the King PTA, one of the organizers of the march. “Today we are rejoicing in hope, the possibilities and the new.”
Frustrated by the lack of a parade or any public celebration on MLK Jr. Day in Berkeley, Williams said that she and Marissa Saunders, program director for the California College Prep Academy in Berkeley, had decided to take matters in their own hands.
“We were on the bus to Sacramento six years ago to protest the budget cuts and we were wondering why we didn’t have any kind of a march in Berkeley,” she said. “Every year a group of us would say ‘OK who’s going to do it?’ but nothing every happened. When Obama won I knew that I just had to do something this year. We are starting small but hope to grow over the next years to report each year how we have ‘changed’ and grown in our Berkeley community.”
Although Williams and Saunders started planning the event before Christmas break, everything else—including invitations to the different PTAs to participate—was put together two weeks ago.
At the end of Cragmont Elementary School fifth-grader Troy Gilder’s heart-rending solo performance of “This Little Light,” Alana Banks, a ninth-grader from the California College Prep Academy, spoke about what change meant to her.
“Obama ‘09 is a bright future to me,” she said, as the audience cheered her on. “It proves the fact that I can do anything. Go to the moon, achieve the King’s dream—even fly without wings. I want to spread love not animosity, bring the world to unity, respect all the values of equality. We can all do it if we believe in his dream.”
Michael Miller of United in Action spoke about the relevance of Vision 2020—a citywide effort to end the achievement gap—in the lives of the present generation.
“For the United States to be competent in the world, our kids need the best education they can get,” he said. “What better place to have the kick off than here today.”
Berkeley Board of Education member Beatriz Levya-Cutler read aloud from Obama’s open letter to his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, in which he says that he ran for president because of what he wants for them and for every child in this nation—starting with good schools, higher education standards, doing away with barriers in academic achievement and the opportunity to go to college, get a good job and ultimately retire with dignity.
“I want all our children to go to schools worthy of their potential—schools that challenge them, inspire them, and instill in them a sense of wonder about the world around them,” Obama wrote in the letter.
“This is what we want for our children,” Levya-Cutler said to applause. “Safety and the opportunity to live life to the fullest.”
Pastor Michael McBride of Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action described the moment as a very special time in history, a period which would inspire generations of young people after him.
“When I was young, It was hard to imagine a black person running for president,” McBride, who is soon going to become a father, said. “But my little baby will grow up with the image of a black president. But this does not signal the end of any kind of work we have to do. There is so much to be done in the city and the schools.”
Throughout the day in Berkeley, ordinary citizens rolled up their sleeves and responded to Obama’s call for a day of action as a way of paying homage to Dr. King’s dedication to public service by cleaning streets and organizing food drives across the city.
Neighbors picked up trash around Le Conte Elementary School, Berkeley High School, Strawberry Creek and the Halcyon neighborhood, among others, and participated in gathering milk and food at Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods for the less fortunate.