MODESTO — Faded images echoed through stories of strained relations between authorities and black people, but hundreds attending a Martin Luther King Jr. event Monday at a Baptist church named Christian Love witnessed nothing but love.
People cheered when a black employee of the Modesto Police Department, wearing a white nurse's uniform, hugged her white boss and thanked his predecessors for enabling her to pursue a new career.
They listened as new Police Chief Galen Carroll acknowledged that many oppressors during King's civil rights era "were wearing this (police) uniform," and clapped when he said everyone will "get a fair shake" during his tenure.
They gave a standing ovation to Presiding Judge Loretta Murphy Begen of the Stanislaus County Superior Court and her detailed history of the United States' long struggle with racial inequality.
The positive focus on law enforcement was intentional, the Rev. James Anderson told the congregation near the end of Monday's 27th annual MLK commemoration. Audience members and civic officials, he said, need periodic reminding that they're all real people who can sing and laugh and worship together.
Begen began with the Revolutionary War and walked attendees through centuries of slavery, segregation and injustice. She called King "a warrior who fought tirelessly" and "shook many Americans from their complacency" before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.
King paved way
King's "seismic" influence, Begen said, paved the way for others to reach milestones, from Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby to Shirley Chisholm, Thurgood Marshall and Colin Powell.
"You know who's next, right?" she said, sensing that many might have watched President Barack Obama's second-term inauguration shortly before heading to west Modesto's Christian Love Baptist Church. "Bring it on!" someone in the audience yelled as people laughed and cheered, and Begen did.
"Brothers and sisters, although my list today is by no means exhaustive, it does serve to illustrate the strides we have made to bring Dr. King's dream to fruition," she said.
Begen was the first white keynote speaker in many years. How many? Nobody seemed to remember or to care.
"It was wonderful," said Barbara Jordan, who doesn't recall missing the annual event since Anderson got the ball rolling in 1986. "Anyone he asks to come, I have confidence they will speak to the occasion."
Carroll, sworn in only two weeks ago, could not take credit for his department having accommodated 12-year employee Dena Brewster's schedule so she could attend nursing school. They both are from Long Beach and have enjoyed swapping stories, so Carroll joked that he might not have been so nice just to keep her at the station.
"The department has taken care of me," Brewster said. "It's going to be hard to leave."
That kind of story needs telling, Anderson said, in a community that hasn't always embraced officers, and vice versa. He praised former Chiefs Roy Wasden and Mike Harden for reaching out to minorities.
"Sometimes, we don't have good feelings about police. We have a tendency to criticize," Anderson told congregants. "We also need to acknowledge them when good things happen."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.