Chris Smith: Sonoma County’s MLK Day celebration goes virtual this year

This would not be a good year to cancel the community dialogue on racial justice that has taken place reliably in Sonoma County for four decades on the occasion of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

With COVID-19 still rampant, the people behind the county’s annual MLK Birthday Celebration did what they had to do: They made the event this Sunday virtual.

Participants in the 7-9 p.m. celebration will be able to join in on Zoom, Facebook Live or YouTube.

An evening of frank talk, introspection, rousing music and birthday cake on the Sunday before the third Monday in January — Martin Luther King Day — has been a tradition in Sonoma County since 1981. That year, the county’s first MLK Birthday Celebration was hosted by the late Pastor James E. Coffee of Santa Rosa’s Community Baptist Church, west county peace and justice advocate Mary Moore and educator Carole Ellis.

This year’s theme: “Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?”

You might agree that the question is as apt and pressing today as it was when King made it the title of his fourth book, published in 1967. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate was assassinated the following year.

Organizers of Sunday’s MLK observance are bringing back, though virtually, Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of late civil rights leader Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Juanita Abernathy, goddaughter of Martin Luther King.

Pastors Abernathy and King worked together as bulwarks of the civil rights movement. Their families were inseparable in Atlanta through much of the 1960s. To the Abernathy kids, King and his wife were Uncle Martin and Aunt Coretta.

Donzaleigh Abernathy has recalled how her interest in acting first showed itself in a living room performance that she staged as a child with her friend, the late Yolanda King, and that was filmed by Dr. King. Also an activist and author, Donzaleigh Abernathy is an actor whose work include roles in the Civil War epic “Gods and Generals” and TV’s “The Walking Dead,” “Any Day Now,“ The Tempest” and “Murder in Mississippi.”

She spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at the 2016 MLK program at Santa Rosa High. For Sunday’s virtual celebration, she’ll speak about common ground in the ’60s civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter.

The birthday celebration will be carried on Facebook Live at It will be also on the YouTube channel MLK Birthday Celebration Sonoma County. A limited number of people will be able to watch on Zoom.

As always, there will be music, theater, art and reflections from a variety of speakers and performers. The one bad thing about a virtual MLK birthday celebration: there’s no way to serve cake.


ALSO A ’GO,’ despite the pandemic’s harsh impacts on face-to-face human gatherings, is the born-in-Sebastopol “Sushi Meets Borsch” celebration.

Normally, a shared meal replete with delicacies from both Japan and Ukraine is central to the public gathering hosted by Sebastopol World Friends, which keeps sister-city relationships in both countries.

Unable this year to have people meet and eat together, members of the organization will instead hold a Zoom event on Jan. 23. To keep international foods involved, and also help out a couple of Sebastopol restaurants, there’s an opportunity to order takeout suppers the evening of “Sushi Meets Borsch” from Sushi Tozai and Hole in the Wall.

As is customary, the program will feature performances by Sonoma County Taiko and Zoloti Maky, formerly the Burevisnyky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble.

The featured speaker on Jan. 23 will be Sebastopol native Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President Bill Clinton. Now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, Pifer will speak on the role of citizen diplomacy in creating and keeping peace.

The optional takeout dinners are just $13 each. There’s no charge for the program, set to start at 6:30 p.m., but participants must preregister at the Sebastopol World Friends website,

For anyone interested in preparing their own Japanese or Ukrainian food to enjoy at home during the celebration, Sebastopol World Friends offers on its website recipes for delights such as large, colorful sushu rolls called Futomaki, Sunomono cucumber salad, Ukrainian cabbage salad and both vegan and meat borsch, known more commonly hereabout as borscht.

Why the spelling discrepancy? Beets me.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and

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