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Sonoma County MLK Day celebration goes digital

One by one Sunday night, little black boxes turned into live video feeds as a roster of Sonoma County residents began populating a Zoom event, marking the start of the most unusual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration in the more than 40-year history of the annual recognition.

For 15 minutes, as if breathing life into those little boxes, Benjamin Mertz coaxed soulful sounds from his piano and belted out spirituals and civil rights songs. The applause was muted, but visible. The smiles, beaming.

“A lot of beautiful things, Benjamin,” said event organizer Tina Rogers. “Allowing people to taste it before the program actually started. What I would like for you to do is keep it rolling, dig a little deep for us … whatever you got for us.”

Mertz obliged, the pianist and music educator playing, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” the old spiritual first recorded in 1924 but popularized by Albany, Georgia, Rev. Ralph Abernathy during the summer of 1962. It was a fine segue into a planned evening of rich history and deep conversations that was set to feature Abernathy’s daughter, Donzaleigh Abernathy.

But shortly after the opening remarks from a couple of organizers, all of the little black boxes went dark, and the live feed ended, cutting off the planned two-hour celebration built on a question: “Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?”

An hour later, Abernathy was back, guiding a reduced audience through a presentation of her lived history. The dogs, the fire hoses, the days of marches in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, where Donzaleigh, as a little girl, walked right up front. That was 1965.

1963, she said, was even more gruesome than 2020. But themes can be carried over.

“Sometimes when you are called, you have to answer,” Abernathy said, referencing the late John Lewis’ own march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Sometimes, she said, “it gets brutal along the way.”

“We all need to be in this struggle together,” Abernathy said, referencing the people from all races and religions who marched for voting rights in the 1960s.

In many ways, Sunday’s celebration was more intimate than any in the event’s more than four decades in Sonoma County. It brought residents into the living rooms of one another.

Back in his living room, Mertz was winding down a soaring opening set as more people were getting settled in for the evening.

“Amen! Amen! If we were onstage at an auditorium, I would be saying, ‘Everybody give a big hand clap,’” event organizer Ken Duncan Sr. said.

Duncan Sr. promised a “powerful program,” and indeed, it launched that way, rising from Mertz’s urgent, piano-backed ballads to Rogers’ lessons on the history of Juneteenth in Santa Rosa. The celebration, centered on the freeing of slaves in Texas more than two years after slavery was outlawed nationally, started out in Santa Rosa as a part of a rally for a political cause led by Santa Rosa Junior College students.

Rogers was there, but she said she doesn’t remember it. She was barely a toddler at the time.

“Now it’s a community Juneteenth festival,” she said.

But the planned evening of frank talk, introspection and a slice of birthday cake – a tradition in Sonoma County since 1981 – would seize up, much like residents’ lives during the past 10 months of sheltering in place since the COVID-19 pandemic made its way into Sonoma County last March.

Once things got back on track, Rev. Lee Turner, of Santa Rosa’s Community Baptist Church, helped bring the evening to a close with a prayer.

“Our God, how we thank you for bringing us this far,” Turner said. “We know we have a long way to go…marching is part of it…We pray that what we do in our life, that the next generation can come and stand on what we have done. Because we stand on the backs of others…”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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