Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Celebrating legacy of civil rights leader

January 19, 2010 

A robust wind and pouring rain didn't dampen the spirits of hundreds of marchers who participated Monday in Merced's 14th annual parade recognizing the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For marchers such as Yolanda Mendoza getting a little wet was a small price to pay, considering that King made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of equal rights and justice for all people.

"I was telling my kids, 'Dr. Martin Luther King had to do this all the time.' And he had to walk much farther," said Mendoza, a teacher at John C. Fremont Charter School. Meanwhile, Mendoza's 9-year-old daughter, Alicia, held a band shield above her head, trying to keep dry from the rain.

Still, Alicia said the weather couldn't keep her away from the march. "Martin Luther King made everything fair for us," she reflected.

The march in honor of King's birthday began at the Amtrak station on 24th Street and proceeded about a mile up Martin Luther King Jr. Way. A two-hour celebration honoring King unfolded afterward inside the Merced County Fairground's exhibit building.

Merced resident Bertha Becerra, 33, brought her three children -- Asuzena Becerra, 8, Brianna Becerra, 11, and Alexis Ruiz, 13 -- to the march. Becerra said she's been attending the march for three years and hopes to impart King's lessons of unity to her children. "I want my girls to honor him," Becerra said. "We should all still try to honor him and continue with his legacy."

The event also drew longtime residents who remembered what life was like before civil rights legislation helped open opportunities for blacks and people of color. Some participants, such as 70-year-old Winton resident Buddy Riggins, remarked about how King's struggles for civil rights made it possible for Barack Obama to be elected president. "Martin Luther King was a man for all of us," he said.

Riggins wore a shirt with a photograph of King and the words "The Dream Lives On."

"We still have a lot of work to do, but it has changed," Riggins added.

Bob Malone, a history and language arts teacher at Rivera Middle School, encouraged his students last week to study King and his contributions to the civil rights struggle. Malone has been participating in the Merced march for eight years. "It's a way of showing respect and standing up for his ideals," Malone said.

Grand marshals at this year's parade included Rev. Dwight Amey, pastor at New Faith Tabernacle Christian Church; Merced dermatologist and Air Force Vietnam veteran Dr. Frank Berry; and fighter pilot Air Force Lt. Col. Nathan "Nate" Smith.

Before the march, the grand marshals gathered for a short meeting at the Merced Parks and Community Services office to talk about King and the significance of his dream.

While all agreed the stain of racism hasn't been completely removed from the fabric of the country, they're optimistic that race will be less of an issue for future generations, thanks to King's contributions and those of others like him. "One hundred years from now, we will be beyond the conversation that we're having today," said Amey, who founded the parade in Merced 14 years ago. "Racism will be like a museum."

Smith, a 40-year-old Palmdale resident and F-15 fighter pilot who's flown missions over Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, said King helped make opportunities in his career possible. "What I really appreciate is the rules were wrong during King's era, and he worked to change those laws," Smith said. "Now there are no more artificial restrictions on what you can achieve."

An experienced jet fighter pilot, Smith serves as commander of the 452d Flight Test Squadron and director of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Combined Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base.

Berry, a 20-year Air Force Vietnam veteran, was named "Flight Surgeon of the Year" in 1966, according to an article from Air Force magazine, "The Airman." While serving in Vietnam, Berry cared for sick and wounded pilots, airmen and soldiers, according to the magazine.

Berry also served for three years as the commander of the hospital at Castle AFB.

Highlights of the parade included a "Unity Blanket" created by students at John C. Fremont Charter School, celebrating community diversity.

The march was led by the Merced Police Department Explorer Scouts' Color Guard, while Tenaya Middle School's Warriors Marching Band and Color Guard entertained as onlookers waved from the sidewalk.

The celebration opened with a stirring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" by 12-year-old Caytlinn Renteria. Entertainment at the celebration included performances from students at John Muir Elementary; Youth Hands of Praise; Youth of Promise 2; Love, Faith, Hope Hip-Hop Steppers, Danzantes de Merced and Sol De Valle.

It may have rained on his parade, but King's legacy could be found everywhere along the route.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.