A “rainbow” of Juneau residents gathered Monday afternoon at St. Paul’s Catholic Church to celebrate the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King would have been 85 on Jan. 15, 2014, a year that marks 50 since he earned the Nobel Peace Prize — he was the youngest to have received the prize at that time.
Juneau’s annual celebration is organized by the Black Awareness Association, which marks its 20th anniversary this year. Sherry Patterson, the organization’s president, opened and closed the event with prayer and praise.
“Isn’t this good? This is awesome! I love these celebrations because we come together as one. We come together as a community. And as Nathel (Sims) and others have said this afternoon, Dr. King gave us a voice, he gave us courage, and us being here today, the many different colors — it’s a rainbow in here,” Patterson said to applause, as she wrapped up the event, which featured a diverse group of speakers and musicians.
Common themes at the event included love, justice and the continuing fight for racial equality through nonviolence, with Alaska Native Sisterhood and Brotherhood Grand Presidents Freda Westman and Bill Martin speaking to the parallel struggles of Alaska Natives and City Manager Kim Kiefer speaking to being mindful every day about improving our world. Education emerged as an important theme for the event, with student Nathel Sims, Thunder Mountain High School Principal Dan Larson and Montessori Teacher Lupita Alvarez all touching on issues of accessibility of educational opportunities and the importance of cultivating compassion and respect in our students. Sally Smith, for Sen. Begich, also touched on education in a statement he released.
“Across this country and in our own state,” Begich wrote, “We have too many young people still growing up in neighborhoods with persistent crime and violence. Underfunded and under-performing schools continue to plague communities across the nation.”
Begich urged that we “rededicate ourselves to the basic values to which Dr. King dedicated his life’s work.”
Larson spoke as someone who had experienced desegregation in action in his home state of Nebraska, living in an all-white suburb and attending all-white schools until ninth grade, when he went to a public school. Larson said Omaha, Neb., adopted a policy that included bussing black students to its predominantly white schools. His school went from having six black students to having 200 in 1977. He cited resistance at first, among students and adults, but said not long after a white vs. black fight that drew police to the school, the students began to forge bonds.
“This was the birth of my desire to pursue a moral purpose and invest myself in and ultimately saturate myself with racial and ethnic diversity,” Larson said.
His role at TMHS follows years of working in schools with a diverse student body, with a goal of creating a safe and supportive environment for all students, he said. Or in King’s words, “to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Alvarez, a longtime Montessori teacher, said she practices the philosophy of educating the whole child: mind, body and soul.
“I have also drawn great inspiration from Dr. King’s work for justice. I share his belief that children are the answer, the answer for a more just and peaceful society in this country and the world,” Alvarez said. “We celebrate today 60 years of having American schools desegregated, however we know there is still yet so much work to do to get rid of racism and discrimination and truly embrace our differences.”
Sims spoke as a black student today, home-schooled but attending classes at the University of Alaska Southeast since her sophomore year of high school. She is 17 and will graduate this year with her high school diploma, as well as an associate’s degree from the university.
“I cannot imagine what life would be like if he had not stood up for his convictions,” Sims said, referencing the retaliation against King for his peaceful actions. “For his endurance, his place in history has been cemented.”
Sims said she is living in his dream, taking classes at the university without facing discrimination.
“In my house, people of all races live together without prejudice or racism,” she said. “Without the work that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King did, this would not be possible.”
But with all the hopefulness and recognition of the progress toward King’s dream, Sims reminded the audience that “it wasn’t always this way and, in many areas, racism and prejudice are very much alive.”
Even in education, Sims said there are many steps yet to take before opportunities will be truly equal.
And though, as speaker Dan Wiese of the Church of Nazarene said, “even the bullet of an assassin has not quieted his voice to this day,” we, as a community, have more work before us.
Sims encouraged all to consider Martin Luther King Jr. Day not just a day off, but “a day to remember and to carry on his dream.”
To close out the program, before benediction with Northern Light United Church Pastor Phil Campbell, performers Patterson, Salissa Thole and Jocelyn Miles, among others, brought everyone together in song with arms locked: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day.”
• Contact Neighbors Editor Melissa Griffiths at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 523-2272.