Hundreds celebrate, remember Martin Luther King Jr. in Merced

Rosa Lopez said she was a child and didn’t speak much English when she first saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on television. But she soon learned how important the civil rights leader was to people like her.

Lopez, 60, of Atwater, remembered King as someone who was integral in key civil rights moments like the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56. King also fought to close the inequality gap many workers, students and people of color across the country felt.

“There were so many injustices in his time and, while we’ve made progress, there is still so much more to do,” Lopez said.

Lopez was one of hundreds of marchers on Merced streets Monday in observance of King’s birthday and to honor the civil rights leader, who moved so many with his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Monday’s event kicked off with a parade, which started at the Merced Amtrak station and ended at the Merced County Fairgrounds. A celebration at the fairgrounds followed the parade.

Eric Carr of Concord said Monday was his first march to honor King. He and his wife, Barbara, traveled to Merced to watch their granddaughter perform in the ceremonies that came after the parade.

Carr, 70, said he saw King twice in person, once in Los Angeles and once in Boston.

Carr said he’s old enough to have experienced the racial tensions King worked to eliminate. He said King’s message of nonviolence was “inspirational” and important to him. “He actually gave you hope that somebody was concerned and working to solve the problems that were going on,” he said.

People of different cultures and ethnicities walked along the street named for the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Some held signs, others chanted and played musical instruments. A few dozen people carried the Freedom Blanket, a quilt made by past members of the Boys & Girls Club and a tradition in Merced.

Many of those who participated in the parade were born decades after King’s historic March on Washington. Robby Huddleston II, a 16-year-old junior at Merced High School, said he’s been to Merced’s march every year of his life. The teen was carried by his father, Robby Huddleston, 51, in the parade before he was even a year old, and graduated to a wagon, tricycle and bicycle before becoming a marcher. “For us, it’s for everybody to get together, to socialize and to honor Dr. King,” he said.

Also marching, and carrying a sign for the Japanese American Citizens League, was Bob Taniguchi, of Merced. Taniguchi, 69, is a board member for the Livingston and Merced chapter of that civil rights organization.

Taniguchi said his organization tries to continue along the path that King trailblazed in his push for civil rights. “Martin Luther King was a truly great man with words of wisdom we should all try to listen to and put into action,” he said.

Taniguchi “vividly” remembers the day an assassin’s bullet took King’s life. A graduate student at the time, Taniguchi said he remembers feeling an “emptiness” and “helpless” when he heard the news.

On Monday, Taniguchi said, he had just listened to one of King’s speeches, and was struck by how little had changed in 50 years. “We’re still not honest about everything, about the inequalities,” he said.

After the march, participants presented songs, dances and speeches to remember King and what he stood for. The celebration, which featured mostly children, was organized by the Martin Luther King Committee.

One organizer, Sylvia Fuller, said she moved to Atwater in 1965 from New Jersey. She remembers feeling racial tensions in the Merced and Atwater areas at the time, but that she’s seen improvement, pointing to the elections of people of different races and ethnicities.

“There are some times, I’m sure, when there are things that make people uncomfortable, but we have come a long way,” she said, adding she’s worked with many organizations in Merced.

“We might have a different method but everybody is focused on improving the quality of our lives in Merced County.”