For details on the commemoration events taking place April 2, 3 and 7, go to the bottom of the story.
East Palo Alto City Councilman Larry Moody was in elementary school when an assassin murdered civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. But 50 years after King’s death, he still remembers that day as vividly as if it happened yesterday.
“I watched all of the adults around me begin crying and really grieving. It was like no funeral I had ever seen before. All of the stakeholders — all of the people I looked up to — were really in deep pain,” he said.
Moody recalled looking up at the clock on the wall.
“It was going ‘thump, thump, thump.’ I remember that I learned that day that no matter what goes on in life, time will keep moving,” he said.
That night, people’s pain turned to anger.
“We watched my city become a fireball,” he recalled.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, the city of East Palo Alto, the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, Columbia Property Trust and Facebook will host three days of events to focus on his legacy.
On April 2 and 7, a festival and celebration in the city will include a fireside chat with Dr. Clarence B. Jones, King’s attorney, adviser and draft speechwriter; music, food, 40 artisan vendors, a children’s pavilion and other activities.
On April 3, the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford will host the Bay Area premiere of the documentary film “I Am MLK Jr.,” music by the Passages Singers, a performance by jazz singer Kim Nalley and a dramatic presentation of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. All events are free and open to the public and honor Jones at the CEMEX Auditorium at Stanford.
Moody reflected on the relevance of King’s legacy today.
“Right now is such a critical period because there are so many balls in the air,” he said.
He noted the #MeToo Movement, Black Lives Matter and the youth campaign against gun violence as successor movements to unresolved issues plaguing the nation.
New emerging movements on behalf of immigrants, women, men of color and youth are carrying King’s cause forward. The willingness for people of all races, creeds and economic stations to come together shows the underlying strength of King’s enduring message of inclusivity and how deeply it has seeped into American consciousness, despite setbacks and the loss of his leadership, Moody said.
“It speaks to all of the values King led us toward. No one was more inclusive of humanity than Martin Luther King. Much of the dialogue we have today about inclusiveness is because of Dr. King.
“If there was ever a time to look at as a benchmark of King’s message, it is now. The counter to King’s voice is right there in the White House,” he said.
And King’s push to resolve things through nonviolence still resonate.
“Michelle Obama says it best: ‘When they go low, you go high,'” he said.
As a councilman and former mayor, Moody has presided over one of the Bay Area’s most diverse cities. The city has welcomed multiple races and ethnic groups and people of diverse economic backgrounds — and they get along, he said.
Its residents also symbolize some of the unfinished business King sought to remedy. Moody noted that King’s last campaign before his untimely death focused on basic human rights: a more equitable distribution of, and access to, better wages, housing, health care and education.
East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica said that there’s “growing structural economic inequality” in the region, and it’s definitely felt in East Palo Alto. There, the city’s lower-wage-earning residents are experiencing a particularly severe housing crisis.
“We have yet to really address more of the human services,” he added. “That concerns me. We can’t wait until we are a rich city to offer more services to our community.”
Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute and the King Papers Project at Stanford, said people should pay more attention to what King didn’t achieve. In last two years of his life, King’s speeches were more about unfulfilled dreams, he said.
“We celebrate his success as a civil-rights leader, but in some ways it’s made us more complacent about the unfinished issue of global human rights. He fought for citizens’ rights, but for 50 years we’ve neglected human rights,” he said. “In terms of global human rights, we’ve lost ground in that area. For many people in the world, their lives haven’t changed.”
(Watch Carson discuss King’s legacy on an episode of “Behind the Headlines.”)
Carson said he thinks the world is moving toward understanding that there should be a basic level of human rights globally.
“But we don’t agree what those rights are. In some countries medical care is free, or education is free,” he noted.
Complacency is of the greatest enemies of King’s legacy. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s removed barriers to voting by eliminating literacy tests and poll taxes, but “we still tolerate a lot of voter suppression,” Carson said.
If voting laws are decided on state and local levels, then those rights can start breaking down and become unevenly applied, he said. A move to Texas should not mean a different set of rules and access to vote than living in Palo Alto, he said.
What’s changed in America since King’s death is not so much sentiments as demographics, he said. It’s perhaps telling that 1964 was the last time the majority of white Americans voted a Democrat for president, he noted. Then-president Lyndon Baines Johnson said after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “We have lost the South for a generation.”
A continuing racial divide is evidenced by political attitudes: Candidates who appeal to turning back the clock to a “better” time, Carson noted, don’t resonate with black Americans, for whom the nostalgia is misplaced.
“If America was great then, I’ll pass,” he said.
Carson isn’t sure we have an answer to the question “Where do we go from here?”
But Moody said there is one important enduring lesson from King that one can take to heart even now.
“The importance of knowing the value of communication can never be underestimated. One thing King taught us is about staying at the table,” he said.
“It would’ve been so easy to submit to picking up rifles and fighting it out ’til death do us part. Not only was he fighting the white establishment, he was dealing with factions in his own community,” Moody said. That persistence and dedication ultimately brought about some of the most positive changes in the last American century, and it continues to be crucial in the nation’s and the world’s current debates.
Abrica also noted that King and civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez brought enduring lessons of persistence and determination that are inspiring a new generation, especially for undocumented immigrants feeling besieged by federal policies.
“No matter how gloomy things are and how gloomy things seem, we’ve got to keep going,” Abrica said.
On March 29 the city celebrated Chavez, who with Dolores Huerta started the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. Members of Chavez’s family were in attendance.
“It’s a good coincidence. Chavez also talked about economic injustice and plain, basic conditions. Both King and Chavez were looking at the ground level of the everyday life of people,” Abrica said.
IF YOU’RE GOING
What: Dr. Martin Luther King Commemoration, Festival and Celebration.
When and where: April 2, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.: City of East Palo Alto presents “Meet and Greet and Fireside chat with Dr. Clarence B. Jones.” Cooley Landing, Bay Road, East Palo Alto.
April 3, 6 p.m.: Dr. Clayborne Carson and the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute present the Bay Area premiere of the documentary “I Am MLK Jr.”; 7:30-9:30 p.m.: Celebration of King’s life with words, images and music by Kim Nalley, September Penn, Ken Alston Jr. ; and Stephon Ferguson performing the “Mountaintop” speech. CEMEX Auditorium, 655 Knight Way, Stanford University.
April 7, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.: Columbia Property Trust/Facebook present MLK 50th Music Commemoration, an outdoor festival with bands, a children’s pavilion, food pavilion, farmer’s market, 40 artisan vendors and more. University Circle, 1900 University Ave., East Palo Alto.