Thousands of people – the largest crowd ever – marched through downtown Fresno on Monday for the 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. remembrance march in honor of the late civil rights leader.
Organizers estimated between 4,000 and nearly 6,000 people attended the march, which included a large contingent of high school students from around the state who had just wrapped up a YMCA California Youth and Government conference and who joined the march as part of the program’s social responsibility initiative. Some students brought signs with them asking for an end to violence, war and hatred, while others simply walked hand in hand with their partners.
The group, which models the state legislature in every way including electing its own student governor, was in Fresno for the weekend conference, and the MLK march was a way for them to get engaged in social responsibilities, said Jennifer Prouhet, senior director of marketing and business development for the program. The group, as diverse as it is, mirrors the state’s multiple demographics.
“They cover the complete gamut of California,” Prouhet said. “They are marching together in unity for each other and for the Fresno community.”
The event also highlighted the imminent transition from President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, to President-elect Donald Trump, as well as the divisions created during the elections.
The event started in front of Fresno City Hall, where several speakers promoted hope and inclusion and urged participants to not be afraid, despite Trump’s criticism of immigrants, Muslims and “Obamacare” – the Affordable Care Act. Then the crowd marched to the Fresno Convention Center to hear more speeches.
Lori Ingram, 58, of Fresno said she attended the event because she feels everyone needs to start standing up for each other as they have in years past. Ingram said that with the incoming Trump administration just days away, it won’t get easier to stand up for each other.
“The new regime that is coming in wants to take some of our civil rights,” Ingram said. “I don’t know what (Trump) is going to do, but he has been tweeting like a child.”
Ingram pointed at an image that stood in front of Fresno City Hall of the crowd that gathered on the National Mall in 1963 for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and said showing up to the Fresno march is one way to get involved.
“Did the weather keep them off the mall? Did getting beat up keep them off the mall?” Ingram asked. “Everyone needs to be passionate now because things are changing, and it’s bad.”
Ingram hoped Monday’s march could get people to think about King’s message, which was not to discriminate. She said Trump’s attacks on the Mexican immigrant population are an attack on California’s culture and not what King dreamed of.
Trump “wants to do away with our Mexican culture,” Ingram said. “Oh no, no, no way. Not going to happen.”
Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines was among a group of political leaders who spoke before the march began. He said there needs to be an honest discussion of the divisions in the United States.
“We know that the public discourse that is going on in our country is wrong,” Baines said, adding that Trump’s attacks on undocumented immigrants and his weekend attack of civil rights leader John Lewis were wrong. And he urged the crowd not to shrink from taking a stand.
“It is now time to act. This is not the time for you to be reluctant,” he said. He added: “People died so that I could be here today. People died so that you could be here today. People died so that you could march.”
A chorus of voices from city leaders and community members rose as marchers moved from City Hall down P Street. As they moved, the crowd sang “Black, brown, white and yellow. We shall overcome.”
The massive crowd paraded south of City Hall with a large image of King at the front while people held signs calling for peace. Some marchers held up signs with King’s image, thanking him for his inspiration.
Bobbie Vaughn, of Fresno, who said she joins the march every year, was moved by the large crowd of people, and said she had not seen it that big in all the years she has attended.
“If just two-thirds of the people that are here today stay with (King’s) word, we wouldn’t have the problems we have today,” Vaughn said. “Just two-thirds.”
Like others, Vaughn said people shouldn’t live in fear of the new president. “He’s here, so you just pray that he gets people behind him that can show him the way,” she said.
James Lett III, coordinator in the MLK Unity Committee, said about 4,000 people joined to walk and remember King. Another organizer, Gail Gaston, offered a larger estimate of the crowd – around 6,000, with most of the attendance coming from the YMCA high school student group.
Lett said that while it was the first time the YMCA group came to Fresno’s MLK march, he is asking that they return every year.
Following the march, which proceeded under cold, gray skies, a commemoration event for King was held in the Fresno Convention Center. The keynote speaker for the event was Kimberly Ellis, executive director of Emerge California, an organization that is trying to increase the number of female Democratic officeholders.
Ellis said King is one reason she was able to rise up and gain a leadership position in politics. Ellis said she hopes some day to become chairwoman of the state’s Democratic party.
“As a woman of color, I am confident I would not be here today, were it not for Dr. King,” Ellis said.
Ellis said King and many other activist leaders have done a lot to advance civil rights in the U.S. but there still is much work to do. She added that somewhere in the convention center crowd may be the next Martin Luther King Jr., United Farm Workers union co-founder Dolores Huerta or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“You are born of this time,” Ellis said, “and how you help define it will define you.”