A strong call was issued Sunday night to forgive the veteran Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez.

It came from a high school senior whose speech won the annual Martin Luther King oratory contest, a key feature of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration.

"It's hard. It's hard to forgive a man for not going through a punishment we feel he needs to go through," said Maria Carrillo High School senior William Singleton. "It's hard to forgive a man for ending a boy's life over a toy gun."

Singleton addressed a crowd of about 250 people in the Santa Rosa High School auditorium at the event now in its 34th year. The oratory contest was held last week at Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa, but its winners were honored Sunday.

"Nonviolence means not only avoiding internal physical violence but also internal violence of the spirit," said Singleton, who also won the contest last year.

Sunday's celebration was dedicated to the memory of Lopez, who was fatally shot on Oct. 22 by a Sheriff's deputy who mistook the boy's airsoft BB gun for a real AK-47.

The tragedy has sparked significant unrest and anger in the local community, especially in the Moorland Avenue neighborhood where Lopez grew up.

Sunday's free event was organized by the MLK Committee and co-sponsored by the Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County. It featured middle and high school student oratories, multi-cultural performances, music from the Celebration Mass Choir and a children's art contest.

Community Baptist Church music director Adam Ivey, playing piano alongside an electric bass player and drummer, accompanied gospel singers and vocalists. A group of black female students from Sonoma State University, performing as the Tribe Step Team, drew strong applause with their percussive dance routine, producing drum corps-type sounds with their feet, legs and hands.

Kyle Duchynski, another Maria Carrillo student and winner of the oratory contest's junior division, gave a speech about violence in America. He juxtaposed two key figures: the 1.5 million killed globally each year in violence, and 50, the number of years since King gave his "I have a Dream" speech.

"After 50 years, it comes down to a single number: one," Duchynski said, asking those in the crowd "what would you do" to spread the principles of nonviolence?

Organizers said the crowd was smaller than in past years, likely due to the 49ers playoffs game.

"I'm happy with the spirit of it, but I'm disappointed that more people didn't choose to support it," said Attila Nagy, a member of the MLK Celebration Committee.

Community Baptist Church Pastor Lee Turner said, "The idea behind the program is fantastic, but I think we had to compete against the 49ers."

Turner echoed William's call for forgiveness.

"We need to learn how to forgive because that's what family does," he said. "Until we learn to work together I don't think we're ever going to fix the problems."

The birthday celebration comes one day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the observance continues Monday with a day of community service called "Day On, Not a Day Off."

It is being organized at the Community Baptist Church from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today, followed by a civil rights march taking participants to Old Courthouse Square.