As Martin Luther King Jr. Day marches commenced in cities around the nation, many connected King’s civil rights legacy to current tensions between police and communities of color.
In Fresno, close to 1,500 people stood in line Monday morning at a march downtown. The largest sign read, “black and brown lives matter.” When Police Chief Jerry Dyer took his turn to speak, a small group of protesters on a small hill nearby turned their backs.
But police brutality wasn’t the only thing Fresnans marched for this MLK Day. They also remembered Les Kimber, a former City Council member and activist for racial equality, who died Jan. 10 at age 80.
Kimber founded Fresno’s African American newspaper, The California Advocate. He also founded the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Committee in 1983 and spearheaded an effort to celebrate King’s birthday as a holiday before it became nationally recognized.
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Sudarshan Kapoor, an emeritus professor of social work at Fresno State, worked closely with Kimber on the unity committee. He said the MLK Day celebration generates positive energy each year, bringing together people from all walks of life.
Kimber “had a great vision, and a dream, like Dr. King,” Kapoor said.
On King, Kapoor said, “His life informs us. His dream still sustains us. His words inspire and motivate us. Let us reclaim Dr. King’s dream. Let us not forget.”
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Americans celebrate MLK Day because King, like Kimber, was a drum major for justice to ensure everyone’s rights were protected.
“Les is not here today, but Les is here in spirit,” he told Kimber’s family. The comment drew cheers.
Dolores Huerta, who founded United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez, led the march and later gave a keynote speech at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. She said King and Chavez had two main things in common: They both believed in nonviolence and said the only way to create change is for each individual to take a stand.
Huerta called on the marchers to end racism, sexism and homophobia.
“Viva Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” she shouted.
“Viva!” the crowd echoed.
They took off from City Hall, marching about three blocks to the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Marchers shouted, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” They held signs with phrases such as, “No Ferguson in Fresno” and “Stop police abuse.”
Anthony Ward, 18, of Fresno held a sign above his head reading, “I can’t breathe.” It was a nod to Eric Garner, an unarmed black Staten Island man who died last year in the chokehold of a white New York City police officer.
Ward said that as a young black man, he doesn’t want to be portrayed as someone whose life doesn’t matter. The MLK Day celebration was a good opportunity to showcase his desire for equality, he said.
“It’s scary when you’re driving and a police officer comes behind you,” he said. “It’s getting scarier every day, realizing the police really don’t care.”
Janay Ezekwe, a Sacramento State student from Fresno, held a sign with a quote from King: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.”
The 19-year-old said King’s words are still relevant, especially at a time when some people say racism no longer exists.
The Rev. Derrick Moss of Providence Baptist Church in Fresno led the march with Huerta and Kimber’s family, among others. He said Monday should have been about King and Kimber. He felt the marchers protesting police brutality took away from that commemoration.
At the same time, Moss said he understood their perspective. He was 7 when King was assassinated. The younger marchers weren’t, though they were alive to see Garner, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown killed.
“This was an opportunity for us to vent about the injustices black people face,” he said.
Mark Kimber said the celebration was an accomplishment for his father and for the entire community.
“You see a good diversity out here,” he said from the steps of the Veterans Memorial Museum after the march ended. “That’s what dad wanted when he started this. It’s bigger than us personally.”