Thousands of Sacramentans take to the streets to celebrate MLK Day

On Monday’s 6-mile march from Grant High School to the Sacramento Convention Center honoring the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Grant High seniors Joseph Allen and John Wynne carried an 8-foot-long banner featuring the words of King, Cesar Chavez, the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Gandhi. The banner also featured the logo of their organization, Pacers for Peace, dedicated to promoting harmony and nonviolence on their campus and throughout the world.

“When there are fights in the cafeteria, we try to resolve them by seeing if we can get a conversation going, no bullying,” said Allen, 17, one of about 20 Pacers for Peace who joined thousands of marchers of all ages and colors to remember King, who would have turned 85 Monday.

“By resorting to peaceful conflict resolution, we can all move forward together to uphold the unity of our community,” said Allen, displaying King’s counsel: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”

Allen, an African American, carried the banner with Wynne, whose heritage is Mexican, Italian and French-Creole. “We march to show the pride in the freedom we all have to be together, instead of separate and segregated,” said Wynne, 17, standing above the words of Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and Chavez: “From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.”

David J. McDermott, a sixth-grader at Natomas Middle School, said King taught him “to fight violence with love instead of violence.

“These two kids were about to fight over a game of basketball, and I said ‘It’s just a game, let it go,’ and they became friends afterward,” said McDermott, 12. “When I see a fight, I tell them to walk away, or try to make them calm down.”

Allen, Wynne and McDermott were among thousands of young people who participated in Monday’s MLK Day march. Their passion for justice continued the legacy of children and teenagers who joined the civil rights movement of the 1960s, said Grant High School English teacher Jeanette Providence, who inspired her students to march.

Providence teaches them about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of May 1963, when thousands of teenagers in Birmingham, Ala., kept the civil rights movement alive by taking to the streets to demand an end to racial segregation. More than 1,000 singing, clapping youths were arrested, and the world saw images of dogs and fire hoses turned on peaceful protesters.

“That’s what provoked President John F. Kennedy to ask Congress to pass what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Providence, 58. “Our youth need to know they have a role in social change, they are not just on the sidelines.”

Providence noted that teen protesters helped end apartheid in South Africa, fought for Mexican independence and pushed for the trial of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2013 for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black Florida teenager. Zimmerman was acquitted.

Chyna Collins, a Grant High sophomore, said she marched to honor the memory of both King and another teenager Providence taught her about, Emmett Till, who was killed in Money, Miss., on Aug. 28, 1955, for allegedly flirting with a 21-year-old white woman. Till, 14, had an eye gouged out, was shot through the head, had a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire and was tossed into the Tallahatchie River.

“The civil rights movement really started with Emmett Till,” said Collins, 15. “… We’re marching because it shows we care what people went through. He was a voice for all of us, and we have to represent.”

At Sacramento’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. dinner earlier this month, Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, spoke about the significance of youth in pressing for social change. He recalled the 18-year-olds in Greensboro, N.C., who launched sit-ins in 1960 at a segregated lunch counter; the college kids who joined the Freedom Riders to register black voters in the south in 1963; and the Children’s Crusade that saved the movement in the spring of 1963 while King sat in jail in “Bombingham.”

“In April 1963, when Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor said: ‘No more demonstrations,’ King protested and went to jail,” Carson said. But as the movement ran low on bail money to get the protesters out and adults didn’t want to take a chance on losing their jobs, organizers finally allowed young people to participate.

“One principal ordered the fence around his school locked so the kids couldn’t leave, so they left their classrooms and pushed over the fence. Even middle schoolers came to downtown Birmingham. The U.S. Justice Department came in, and Connor realized the game was over and King had his victory,” Carson said.

King went on to meet with President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, who was then U.S. attorney general. He gave a speech before 200,000 people in Detroit “talking about his dream before the March on Washington that led to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964,” Carson said. “If not for those teens in Birmingham, there might not have been a March on Washington.”

Crowd estimates for Monday’s march in Sacramento varied widely. March director Tom Burruss, a 26-year-veteran, estimated the combined number of people marching from Del Paso Heights in the north and Oak Park in the south exceeded 30,000, while Sacramento Police Department spokeswoman Michele Gigante put the number at closer to 10,000. Regardless of the headcount, young people of all ethnicities were well represented.

Karina Garcia, a 17-year-old Grant High School senior, called King “my idol.”

“I feel like I’m sending him thanks for what he did for all of us, not just a specific race,” she said. “My friends are black, white, Russian, Ukrainian and Asian, and King has everything to do with it. I love it!”