Crowd thin, spirit strong at Santa Rosa's MLK celebration

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What would Martin Luther King Jr. think of "wake and bake" messages on Twitter and "drinking with my homies" status updates on Facebook?

William Singleton, 16, feels shame to think of it. On Sunday, he told a crowd gathered at Santa Rosa High School to celebrate King's birthday that he thinks many young people take their lives for granted.

Sunday's event was held two days before what would be the slain civil rights leader's 84th birthday. The annual birthday celebration was held by a Sonoma County committee of religious leaders and activists and included performers, speakers and talks by winners of the annual King oratory contest, speaking on the theme: "What would Martin do now?"

Singleton, a Maria Carrillo High School junior, and 13-year-old Jose Cazares, an eighth-grader at Hilliard Comstock Middle School in Santa Rosa, were winners of the annual King oratory contest.

"I needed my English teacher to force me to write this speech," Singleton said. "But without Dr. King, we'd have none of this."

He called on those in the audience to keep the march for equality moving forward.

"I've felt shame in my heart for too long. It's time I fight for myself, for the future that I want," Singleton said.

The thermostat read 54 degrees at 5 p.m., when the annual birthday celebration began with about 200 people in the auditorium's 910 seats. By the time it ended three hours later, the room was filled with warmth.

The crowd stood, clapped and stomped for Singleton and Cazares, who also won the oratory contest.

"We are asked to do small things with great love," said Kenneth Duncan, who chaired the celebration. "This story will die forever if we stop repeating it."

Said newly retired Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, "When we forget, our country goes in the wrong direction."

Woolsey represented the North Coast for 20 years and was honored Sunday for championing peace and human rights during her career in public office. She thanked Sonoma County for remembering that King's birthday "is a big deal."

The theme was carried on by keynote speaker Vince Harper, Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County senior program manager.

Harper recounted key moments in his life when he felt called upon to work with young people and address youth violence.

"Anyone can be great, because everyone can serve," he said.

The audience rose to its feet again after Summerfield Waldorf School student Lilly-Ann Najmabadi passionately spoke the words of Sojourner Truth:

"I could work as much and eat as much as a man -- when I could get it -- and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?" she said, alongside Simmons Brownwyn who portrayed Sally Hemings.

The crowd was small compared with previous years, when Community Baptist's late pastor James Coffee led the celebration at the Wells Fargo Center.

Harriet Grey of Santa Rosa, a retired educator, said it was "disheartening" that the crowd was so thin on such an important day. But, like King, she had hope.

"I think it's coming back," Grey said.

Organizers encouraged people to celebrate the MLK holiday Jan. 21 by volunteering instead of resting. For more information about "A Day On, Not a Day Off," call 546-0744.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220, or on Twitter @jjpressdem.

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