The message of unity and equality and immigration reform claimed the spotlight Monday as hundreds of people marched in downtown Fresno to honor slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The sunny day drew nearly 2,000 participants including police, city and school officials to Fresno's 30th annual celebration, organizers said.
A diverse crowd of marchers carried signs saying "11 million dreams 4 citizenship," "Let Freedom Ring," and "Support for more jobs" as they walked and sang to the protest song King adopted, "We Shall Overcome."
Former City Council Member Les Kimber and Sudarshan Kapoor, Fresno State professor emeritus, held a large photograph of King to begin the march, which started at St. John's Cathedral on R Street. The procession turned onto Tulare Street and stopped in front of City Hall before heading to the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, where more speeches were given to remember King, who was assassinated in 1968.
"He's a great hero of mine; he changed the course of history," Kapoor said. "He brought the message of peace and non-violence (showing) that we can bring change."
In front of City Hall, many including Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer, and City Council Member Oliver Baines shared to the diverse crowd what King's legacy means to them.
During Baines' speech, he asked the crowd to reflect.
"When you see something on the television or radio were people are still fighting for equality; whether it be a community trying to fight against social inequality ... whether as individuals who are trying to fight for their rights to become citizens of this country," Baines said. "What are you doing when these things are occurring around you?"
He urged the community "to stand with those that are fighting for equality no matter what occurs," which drew loud applause from the crowd.
Others, such as Kimber, raised many concerns on subjects dealing with poverty, immigration, and politics.
"We can't stop now until elected officials are persuaded to adopt a 21st century vision that would help them reach the conclusion that big problems can't be solved by small ideas," Kimber said.
He urged the community to get involved and fight for equality for all.
"If Dr. King was with us today he would applaud the progress that we have made over the past 50 years, but he would remind us that although we have come a long ways our journey is not yet over," Kimber said. "We have worked too hard and we've come too far to turn around now."
The march drew a mix of annual participants and others who were walking the route for the first time.
"It's amazing to be here," said Yvette Vasquez, 26, of Fresno as she walked with her daughter Aubree, 3, and son Xavier, 4.
"The feeling that you get and the sense of pride for what Martin Luther King did to get everybody to where they are today just made me want to give my kids that piece of history so they can say that they were a part of it," she added.
Rena Mitchell, 38, of Fresno, remembers marching in Fresno when she was 10. Nearly a decade later, she retraced King's march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery.
"That was an amazing experience," she said. "They walked it for us to get our freedom. For me to walk that path is just like walking their same footsteps."
Mitchell, who brought her two boys, ages 8 and 11, said it's important to pass on King's legacy to younger generations.
"It's really exciting that the tradition is still alive," she said. "I pray that they don't ever give it up."
Gail Gaston, who helped organize the march, said the crowd -- composed of African Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians and others -- is a reflection of the Valley's diverse community.
"We have religious and cultural diversity represented here," she said. "I think that we can all agree on one thing -- that we support Martin Luther King and believe in his dreams."
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