Lakewood’s Martin Luther King celebration notes ‘unfinished business’

University of Puget Sound professor Dexter Gordon put a hard edge on the City of Lakewood’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Saturday, harshly criticizing the social injustices that continue to divide America 52 years after King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I see Dr. King’s dream as unfinished business,” Gordon said in his keynote address. “It is unfinished because too many of our children lack equal opportunities.”

None of the ingredients of King’s dream for a just society — decent housing for all, equal educational opportunities, full employment and an adequate minimum wage — has been achieved, Gordon said.

Police interactions with young black men are so bad, he said, that whenever his son has any contact with a police officer, “I worry that he could die.”

Gordon, the director of the African American Studies program at UPS, urged the approximately 300 people who attended Saturday’s event not to take for granted what was achieved in the civil rights movement.

“It is the job of this generation to make sure the work of the civil rights generation is not rolled back,” he said.

“Progress in this country does not come naturally,” he said. “Progress is achieved when people of conscience stand up and demand that the nation live up to its creed.”

Lakewood pastor James Kim, who gave the invocation, delivered a similar message.

“We are not who we were 50 years ago,” Kim said, “but it is unacceptable that it (King’s dream) is not a reality today. All these civil rights are still a dream, and we declare that as unacceptable. We gather saying, ‘We’ve got work to do.’ ”

Saturday’s gathering at Clover Park Technical College was Lakewood’s 12th King celebration.

The annual celebration has heightened importance in Lakewood, Mayor Don Anderson said, because of the city’s racially diverse population.

Anderson called Lakewood “the most truly diverse community in Washington,” noting that fewer than half the children enrolled in Lakewood schools are white and that 16 percent of the city’s businesses are owned by Asian Americans.

In the latest census, 15 percent of Lakewood residents identified themselves as multiracial or “other,” Anderson said. And, he said, the area has been a pioneer in mixed-race marriages, mostly because of American soldiers returning to Fort Lewis with foreign brides.

“We are perhaps a generation ahead of our peers trans-racially,” Anderson said.

The official program reflected that diversity. The entertainment, most by schoolchildren, ranged from Irish dancers to a piano arrangement of Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz, to an all-woman Korean drumming group and the Total Experience Gospel Choir.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, this year’s celebration had some added historical elements.

Shortly before 9 a.m. about 30 people marched along Lakewood Drive and Steilacoom Boulevard carrying signs modeled after those carried by marchers at the height of the civil rights movement. Among the messages were:“All Men are Created Equal” and “We Demand the Right to Vote Everywhere.”

Before the formal program began at 10 a.m., singers accompanied by a guitar performed spirituals and protest songs from the civil rights era, including “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “The Times They are A-Changin’ ” and “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

Lakewood resident JoEthel Smith, one of the primary organizers of the celebration, said the march was intended to get the community involved. Chilly rain and the early hour kept some away, Smith said, but she nevertheless regarded it as a success.

Smith, 80, was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and lived there until she was 22. She recalled the early days of the city’s bus boycott when she helped people get to work by driving them in her car.

“If we work together, we can eliminate prejudice,” Smith said. “Bringing people closer together — that’s my ultimate goal. Working collectively, we can make a difference.”