MERCED — Hundreds of Mercedians representing all ages and backgrounds took to the streets Monday to remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, participating in an annual march honoring the trailblazing civil rights leader.
Some marched from the Amtrak station to the Merced County Fairgrounds with a group carrying signs and others walked with family and friends, but many simply strolled by themselves under the sunny sky that accompanied the 17th annual event, which drew about 750 people.
Monday's parade and march was followed by a celebration program at the fairgrounds.
Renee Davenport, 65, of the Merced County Democratic Central Committee, remembered being among the five or six people who participated in Merced's first march honoring King 17 years ago. "I've marched every year since then," Davenport said.
An advocate for the homeless, Davenport said the march signifies the importance of drawing together people from all backgrounds to solve common problems.
"We have a lot of issues in our community, and I was born and raised here. In order to pull ourselves back up, we need to start working together as a community," she said.
Betty Gaston attended the event, held on the federal holiday celebrating King's birth, for the first time with her seven children. She was glad to see the community come together, regardless of color, creed or religion.
"That's a legacy in itself," she said. "Because it just wasn't possible before."
Some Mercedians who participated in the march remembered meeting significant figures in the civil rights struggle. Shannon Picciano, district representative for state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, met King's wife, Coretta Scott King, back in 1985.
Back then, Picciano was working for California Gov. Deukmejian, when the civil right's leader's widow visited the governor's office.
"She was so warm and she was so awesome," Picciano said. "I felt like I had touched a part of history and she had touched me. It was just an event I'll never forget."
UC Merced student Una Chow, 21, said it's important for communities to have events to keep King's message alive.
"It helps us remember all he did for us -- all he sacrificed," she said.
Liza Iv, also a 21-year-old UC Merced student, agreed. "It's nice to bring the community together and to remember him for what he did," she said.
Monday's march was a walk down memory lane for some who participated in the civil rights movement. Phillip Simpson, 74, marched with King in Chicago during the mid-60s. He said the community is marching to honor King's legacy, but back then, people were marching for a direct purpose.
He said that though change has happened, not all of King's goals have been fulfilled. For example, he said there's still serious violence in the community, and much work to be done.
"We are not there yet," he said. "We still have racism in this country."
Ashanti Vigil, 39, said racism probably will never go away completely, but there is hope.
"As long as humans are humans ... it's going to exist," she said. "But for the most part, I see that it's going to get better, it has gotten better and it will continue to get better for everyone."
Tamara Cobb, south Merced representative for the nonprofit Building Healthy Communities, remembered being in the fourth grade when King was assassinated. Cobb said King's sacrifice made it possible for her to "pursue dreams that her forefathers couldn't dream of."
"His main message that I carried with me was the fact that everyone here has the right to be something here in America," Cobb said.
Others remarked about the significance of the King holiday falling on the same day as the presidential inauguration.
Rich Gipson, vice chairman of the Merced County Democratic Central Committee, said he remembers the days when few imagined a black man would be elected president of the United States.
Gipson said King's dream of people coming together played an active role in President Barack Obama's election.
"Whoever thought 50 years ago we'd have a black president? None of us did," Gipson said. "It's not the fulfillment (of King's dream). We have a long way to go. There's no question about that. But we've come a long way."
Eugene Drummond Jr., a member of the MLK Committee that organizes the event annually, said it took a great collaboration among individuals and agencies to make the event possible. Organizers were pleased with the turnout.
"I would like to thank all of the people that participated and came out," he said. "There's a lot of things they could have done, and they chose to be at the King event to remember a man who created many opportunities for so many people."
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Video from Monday's events.