On a frosty Monday morning that thawed out quickly, a joyous procession of more than 20,000 Sacramentans trekked downtown from Oak Park, Sacramento City College and Grant High School to honor the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Reveling in Sacramento's storied diversity, the crowd bounced to marching bands and drum lines. The march converged on the west steps of the Capitol, where many got chills hearing Julie Vang, a Hmong American, belt out the national anthem.
The theme of this year's event was dealing with the education gap that plagues African American and other minority communities. March organizer Sam Starks of MLK 365 said King's dreams of justice and equality for all will not become reality until America closes the opportunity and achievement gaps between rich and poor, black and white, yellow and brown.
"More than 1.3 million high school students drop out every year. That's one every 26 seconds," Starks told the sea of faces at the Capitol. "It's not enough that we march only to honor the past; we must impact that future."
Economic disparity plays a factor, he said. By fifth grade, poor students of all races are two years behind their wealthier, predominantly white peers in reading and math. By eighth grade, they have slipped three years behind, and by 12th grade, four years behind.
African American students are three times more likely than white students to be placed in special education programs, and half as likely to be in programs for the gifted in elementary and secondary schools, Starks added.
And one in three African American males will be incarcerated in state or federal prison during their lives, especially if they don't finish high school, Starks said. For Hispanic males, the incarceration rate is one in six; for white males, one in 17, he said.
"We are not going to give up, not on our watch," Starks told the crowd.
The achievement gap has tightened since King declared in 1964, "as Negroes have struggled to be free they have had to fight for the opportunity for a decent education."
As one strand of the march snaked through Land Park, participants had varying views on how to close the gap.
"It all comes down to effort," said Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Lucius Winn. "Some want to do just enough to get by, and the rest of us want to achieve."
Today there's no excuse not to make it, said Winn, 50. "You have to have the desire. A lot of people are going to shut the door in your face. It doesn't matter who you are."
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, "when they were marching for real, they had obstacles," Winn noted. Things are much easier today, but without a good family structure, "it's going to be easier to give up."
When black men don't take responsibility for their children, it's easy for kids to lose their way, he said.
The members of Omega Psi Phi, a black fraternity formed in 1911, are taking responsibility through Project Uplift, said Shawn Jenkins of the Stockton chapter.
"Every other week, we take about 40 kids on outings, tour colleges and give out scholarships," said Jenkins, one of 20 Omegas clad in purple.
Rodney and Marsha Robinson marched with their daughters Natalie, 12, and Nyah, 8.
"This is so cool," Nyah said, surveying the crowd from under her blue Furby cap.
"My daughter Natalie was the only black student in her GATE class," Rodney Robinson said, referring to the Gifted and Talented Education program. "Sometimes there's still a little stereotyping."
Jordan Gaddis, a 22-year-old UC Davis senior, said he was one of only two African Americans majoring in cell biology. Gaddis, of El Dorado Hills, said his father, an urgent-care doctor, and mother, a state worker, didn't let him fall into the achievement gap.
"Without my family's example, I probably would have given up," he said.
Monday's real payoff was the tremendous sense of unity, said Julie Cha, a 17-year-old Hmong student at Valley High School.
"I love the diversity here; it's not just a certain race," she said.
"It moved me personally," said Charles Booth, 15, of the Sacramento Youth Commission. "It was empowering that I was doing something to help bring people together."
Donald Northcross and Darrell Roberts, two Sacramento-area activists who grew up in the segregated South, said the struggle won't be over until people address the breakdown of the black family and the resulting poverty, unemployment, crime and incarceration.
"About 70 percent of African American households are headed by single mothers," said Northcross, a former Sacramento County sheriff's deputy who hopes to help recruit, train and organize 100,000 African American men to mentor African American males over the next decade. "We can't just erase 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow in 50 years," he said.
But Maxwell Stanton, an immigrant from Guyana wearing a black-red-green-yellow Rasta African knit cap, said people have plenty to celebrate, as he walked with his girlfriend, Brenda Morrison. and her granddaughter.
"I can wake up to a black president, go out onto the streets, have a good time and be alive and happy," said Stanton, 54. "We are living the dream."
America's first nations prophesied this day, said Albert Titman, a Sacramento Miwok Indian.
"We were told generations ago that one day all the nations – white, black, red, yellow and brown – would come together in this time of healing. The dream is now."