Upturned signs lined the Garfield High School gymnasium entrance in a veritable thicket, awaiting hundreds of marchers who would fill the space to honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Those were emblazoned by the year’s logo, a drawing of King with the words “20/20 Vision” in bold type across the top. A bit farther down the parking lot, supporters of the new effort to tax Amazon offered their own picket signs. Plenty of other attendees came with their own, calling for peace through justice and lifting up their individual communities. A local union handed out pins that said “Unity.”
The crowd was made up of a multiplicity of groups marching in honor of a man who was murdered for his commitment to bending the arc of history toward justice.
“I have a mentor figure who says that MLK Day is a day on, not a day off,” explained Elizabeth Alebachew, a member of the “Making Connections” college readiness program, which supports students and their families in underserved communities.
In that spirit, the 38th annual celebration of King’s birthday — reportedly the longest-running MLK event on the West Coast — was a memorial to those who had done and were doing the work of racial justice and community building in Seattle and a call to action for those new to the fight.
Hundreds packed inside the gym, its floor protected with a large blue tarp. After an attempt to alert a handful of people illegally parked at Ezell’s Famous Chicken who were about to find out not all parking was free on the federal holiday, the program began with a welcome by Ken Workman of the Duwamish Tribal Council and Eddie Rye Jr., who one year ago had received the Martin Luther King Jr. Medal of Distinguished Service from then-King County Councilmember Larry Gossett.
This year was Gossett’s turn to be recognized. After 25 years on the King County Council, Gossett lost his seat to Girmay Zahilay, a young son of Ethiopian immigrants who grew up in South Seattle. But Larry G., as Rye called him, had long left his mark.
Gossett, alongside other activists, is credited with the successful movement to rechristen King County after Martin Luther King Jr. Originally, the area was named in honor of William Rufus King, who served as vice president to Franklin Pierce for roughly six weeks before he died. He was also a defender of slavery and fought to allow the barbaric practice in southern states and new territories.
While the county itself voted to change its namesake in the 1980s, it took another 20 years for the legislation to be approved by the state.
Also honored was Jacquie Jones Walsh, the 2nd Vice President of the local NAACP chapter. Walsh passed on in 2019.
Rally speakers did not shy away from politics, local or national, in their call for a new vision for 2020.
While this political moment is fraught and dangerous, the fight for justice cannot be about returning to the status quo, said Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment network at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound.
Normal was not safe, equitable or fair, and liberation means fighting the three evils Dr. King articulated: racism, poverty and militarism, Afzali said.
“Polite racism is still racism,” she said. “Change is coming, and that is why there is so much pushback.”
A quick glance at the news demonstrated Afzali’s point.
At roughly that same moment, heavily armed White men had closed in on Richmond, Virginia, to protest for the Second Amendment rights that were not under threat. Lois Beckett, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper, posted a clip of video to Twitter noting the relative absence of police in the crowd, despite the fact that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam had declared a state of emergency in advance of the rally.
When 30 members of the Black Panther Party carried guns to the California state capitol in the 1960s, even conservative organizations decided to back a gun control measure.
Seattle was home to the second-largest contingent of the Black Panthers, Logic Amen, vice principal at Tacoma High School, told rally attendees.
“King didn’t live long enough to execute a strategy to get out of this burning house,” Amen said, reinforcing that Black people need safe places to heal, educate and love themselves.
Such space is dwindling in Seattle.
After the conclusion of the rally, marchers lined up in the parking lot of Garfield and set off down East Jefferson Street. People came out of their homes to watch the marchers go by, mostly White families in a Seattle neighborhood that was at one time more than 70 percent Black.
In previous years, marchers would continue north before turning west, but the organizers had something else in mind. The stream of bodies cut down 14th Street and looped around the Children and Family Justice Center, a more than $200 million complex of jail cells and courts meant for youth.
“That used to be a parking lot,” remarked one marcher, whose companion replied that there were other, better, uses of the money: education for youth, job training, almost anything.
The new complex is set to open this year in a county and city whose stated commitment to zero youth detention is belied by the massive investment in it, advocates say. Community opposition to a large, expensive symbol of the carceral state in the heart of the Central District remains fierce.
Marchers continued down James Street through the heart of the downtown and pooled in City Hall Park around a stage where performers alternated between song and calls to action. As the afternoon wore on, people split off, venturing to the bus shuttling people back to Garfield High School. A communal meal would wrap up the day.
Communities across the nation come together on the third Monday in January each year to remember King’s birthday. This year, he would have been 91, possibly still alive to enjoy the proceedings himself. The violence of the Civil Rights Era is far from buried in a not-so-distant past and the present political climate shows a deep fear of the demographic and political changes that are likely to transform the country a few decades in the future.
It is a clear sign that the movement King helped push forward is far from over.
This article was updated to correct the quote from Aneelah Afzali.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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