Merced celebrates March on Washington anniversary

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comAugust 25, 2013 

— It was nearly 3,000 miles away from Merced, but 50 years ago many locals had their eyes trained on civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as he presented his "I Have a Dream" speech and led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

"We were all television watchers," Lenard Rhodes said with a smile.

Rhodes, 73, of Merced said he had just graduated from college when King gave the speech that moved so many.

"The fact that (King) was able to present 'I Have a Dream' to the extent that he did was a blessing for us all," Rhodes said. "It gave us hope."

Rhodes was one of the scores of people gathered Sunday in Applegate Park for Church in the Park, an event organized by Perry Yokley Family Development Center's group for seniors.

Several performers offered jazz, gospel and rap performances. About a dozen churches participated.

Rhodes said he remembers a time in Merced when landowners were free to discriminate against tenants or homebuyers based on race. "Black people couldn't live across the tracks," he said. "We had maybe one family living across Bear Creek."

Rhodes said celebrating the anniversary is a good way for people to remain vigilant about civil rights. "We should be proud to memorialize this day," he said. "Particularly after the Supreme Court knocked down the Voting Rights Act."

King was instrumental in pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Sunday's keynote speaker, Napoleon Washington, said he watched King give his speech on TV on Aug. 28, 1963. Washington was 15 and watched King from his grandmother's living room.

"It was a powerful day to hear Doctor King," the 65-year-old said. "I had been aware of his effort to bring about racial awareness and tear down the wall of segregation."

Washington said he remembers sitting where he liked when on a bus in the Bay Area, but, once he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, he would be forced to move to the back of the bus or train.

During his closing words Sunday, Washington told those in attendance to continue to dream as King did.

Kirk Wright and Ruth Tomlinson, two of the organizers, said they hope Church in the Park will serve as a reminder of King's dream, which has yet to be fulfilled.

The Rev. Edward Prothro-Harris, 52, said he was a baby the day King gave his speech. However, the story of King's dream was passed down to him from his uncle, who was in Washington, D.C., in 1963, and his parents, who were involved in the fight for equal rights.

In that same vein, Church in the Park was a way to educate the next generation, Prothro-Harris said.

"We continue to share these things with the younger generations and bring these things to the attention of the community," he said, "to let the world know we're not done."

If you did not attend Sunday's event, but would like to celebrate the 50th anniversary, there's still time.

The King Center, an Atlanta-based library, plans a national bell-ringing. The King Center recommends ringing a bell or playing the sound of a bell for no longer than 15 seconds.

The bell-ringing is set for noon.

The King Center asks anyone planning to participate in a bell ringing to register at www.eventbrite.com/event/7705309789.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or by email at tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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