About 2,500 people of all ages attended the 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center on Monday, but the speakers spoke directly to young people.
Politicians, community leaders and others challenged children, teens and younger generations in the audience to dream about a better world for everyone and to do something to incite change.
The event focused on the progress made possible by King’s actions during the civil rights movement, but also touched on the troubles still facing minorities across the United States.
The Lincoln High School drumline got things off to an upbeat start, but it was the performance of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” that set a powerful tone for the event. Tacoma School of the Arts junior Tiffanny Hammonds sang as the audience joined in.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland spoke about injustices that still exist in Tacoma and beyond, and about the responsibility of all those who hope for a stronger community to improve the lives of everyone.
“We in this room have to be willing to do the work ourselves,” said Strickland, whose remarks about fighting for economic equality and a living wage drew enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who made a surprise appearance at Monday’s event, echoed Strickland’s remarks. He spoke about a Lincoln High School student he met several years ago who was undocumented and yearned for the opportunity to afford a college education.
The state must pass legislation to extend financial aid to all students regardless of citizenship status, Inslee said, “so all of our students have justice in the state of Washington.”
Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said that as a grandmother of nine, she is increasingly focused on the future of King’s dream.
“There is much, much more to be done,” she told the crowd. “I look around this room and I see amazing people. As we go forward today, we should think about what ways we can advance Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream.”
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck said the key to progressing toward King’s vision of equality is the next generation. He said he has faith that young people will carry on the legacy.
“I challenge you today, prove me right,” he said, drawing loud applause.
Eric Boles, a former NFL player and Foss High School graduate who delivered the keynote address, also emphasized the role of young people in improving society. Boles said dreaming big, thinking big, and using small actions to change the world will keep the country moving forward.
“You’re not laying bricks,” he said. “You’re building a cathedral.”
Following Boles’ speech, the South Sound MLK Mass choir took the stage. Next was a civil rights history lesson from Bob Williams of Living Voices, an organization that combines archival footage and solo performances.
After the event, 16-year-old Maia Hill said she had a deeper understanding of the sacrifices made by King, and that she would encourage other young people to attend the celebration in the future.
Diana Durham, 65, said Monday’s celebration persuaded her to pass the message along to young people in her family.
“It helped me (learn how to) inspire my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” she said.