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On a steamy summer afternoon in Washington, D.C., Charles Prickett gathered with hundreds of thousands of other civil rights advocates.

The mood was jovial, like a street festival, he recalls, with the crowd listening only occasionally to the speakers and performers.

At least until the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to speak.

"When King started to speak, about the second sentence, 'I have a dream' was on everybody's mind," he said. "It stopped everyone in their tracks."

It felt like history being made, said Prickett, then a teen-aged activist from Illinois, now a Santa Rosa lawyer and a retired official of Santa Rosa Junior College.

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, remembered now as a key turning point in the civil rights movement, a peaceful gathering of a multi-racial crowd of at least 250,000 — Prickett estimates it at twice that — in the nation's capital to demand change.

The march "was like going to a family reunion," said Prickett, who had abandoned his safe life as a white college student for the dangerous business of helping black residents of Mississippi register to vote. "The thing that impressed me most was that everyone was on the same page, everyone was happy to be there, everyone was there for the same purpose."

It does not appear that many people from Sonoma County attended the march at the time, and few, if any, current residents other than Prickett were present.

But the memory is strong.

The late Gilbert Gray, then the head of the local NAACP chapter, may well have been the only local person to attend the march, according to his daughter, the Rev. Ann Gray Byrd, now the president of the chapter her father helped found.

Gray and chapter presidents from around the Bay Area teamed up to drive cross-country together, stopping only to gas up and change drivers for fear that someone might try to stop them.

He came home struck by King's metaphor of an unpaid promissory note, the notion that the nation had failed to deliver on it promises of freedom and justice, at least for blacks.

Until his death in 1997, Byrd said, her father lost no opportunity to use the speech as a teaching tool, pushing his children and his fellow chapter members to take an active stand in support of justice.

He taught that "we have a responsibility to continue to make sure those responsibilities are redeemed — and to work toward it," she said.

But now, half a century later, has the nation begun to pay down that unpaid debt?

Prickett said racism persists, but has become more subtle and therefore more difficult to attack. He is dismayed that many of the issues that King and other march organizers wanted to address remain, for both black and Hispanic communities: racism, lack of economic opportunity, uneven application of the justice system.

But he sees hope, particularly after his encounters with students at SRJC.

"I place my faith in the younger generation," he said. "They don't harbor these kinds of baseless prejudices; they tend to look at people as individuals."

Others aren't so sure.

Byrd said she sees relatively little having changed. As a young person, she said, she found the attitude in Santa Rosa toward blacks to be "civil hostility," with no outright repression, but no acceptance on the part of the white majority. She said she still feels that attitude.

She's hoping to put her father's lesson of activism into practice with a series of public forums next year to discuss issues of race, justice, and education.

"We all know that these problems and this civil hostility is going on, but what do you do about it," she said. "We don't talk about it."

The Rev. H. Lee Turner of Santa Rosa's Community Baptist Church, said progress toward racial and economic equality seems to have stalled. King and his message have become vague and almost mythical icons, which takes away the urgency of his struggle.

To remedy that, he plans to mark the anniversary with public showings of the full speech at the church, 1620 Sonoma Ave., at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.

"I shudder at the thought that (the speech) is just another icon in our history and not taken for what it should be," said Turner, who was a child in Seattle when the speech was delivered. "Really, the consciousness of this country is threaded through what he was saying."

Longtime Petaluma activist Gloria Robinson agrees, worrying that the urgency of the quest for civil rights has cooled and that young people today have been lulled by the end of the formal, harsh segregation that she experienced as a young woman in Miami.

Before moving to California in 1961, she had participated in a number of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Florida. She vividly remembers how the white waitresses simply ignored the black would-be patrons as if they did not exist.

King's speech, which she watched on television, struck a powerful chord with her. "I knew I was watching part of history because I had lived part of history," she said.

Society has made some progress with the end of formal segregation, but visiting her native Florida today is disappointing, she said.

"It hasn't changed that much," she said. "We still have our little neighborhoods; we're not talking to one another because of our skin color."

Mary Moore, a longtime west Sonoma County activist, said the image of King and his iconic speech has been "romanticized and sanitized" over the years, obscuring what he stood for and how far society has yet to go in realizing his dream.

"I'll feel like we made it when we honor Malcolm X in the same way we honor King," she said.

She's less that confident that today's young people are as free of prejudice as Prickett believes. They will need civil rights activists pushing them just as earlier generations did.

"It's not just a matter of waiting for (old attitudes) to die out," she said. "And anyway, that's kind of a long wait if you're living your life now."

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