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While the actions and words of Martin Luther King Jr. during his lifetime played a prominent role in Monday’s Lompoc MLK Day Celebration, one of the overarching themes of the event focused on how King’s legacy still can effect change in 2018.

Several speakers alluded to the racial and political tensions that are currently simmering throughout the country and suggested that we, as a society, should hold King up as an example and guide as we continue to strive for those ideals of peace and justice that King spent so much of his life fighting for.

“Remember that King’s dream must still live on — meaning we all have a duty to pick up the baton that he handed off and make sure that we fight against the injustices that still persist today,” said Martin Willis, one of a handful of speakers at the event.

That sense of joining together and continuing to move forward was shared by every speaker at the three-hour event, which took place at El Camino Community Center. It was held on the national MLK Day holiday, which occurred this year on what would have been King’s 89th birthday. Between the comments offered by speakers, there were live song and dance performances, poetry readings, a musical puppet performance and a skit put on by children.

The celebration, which also included several food and information vendors representing a wide range of local organizations, was coordinated by a committee of local volunteers, led by Pastor Ron Wiley, of Lompoc’s Grace Temple Baptist Church, and Pastor Bill Johnson, of St. Philip AME Church in Santa Maria.

Johnson opened his comments by noting that King was driven in large part by his strong Christian faith.

“I don’t want to delude you young people, (but) not all churches, not all people and not all political factions supported Dr. King,” Johnson said. “Some of them opposed him and his dream, even until today.”

Johnson noted that it will be up the younger generations of today — he pointed to millennials, in particular — to continue the fight for humanity and equality.

“The vision that King had of a future America is being shaped by you, being shaped by the events that you observe and the experiences that you live today,” he said to the younger attendees in the audience.

“(Let King’s) words become a mantra for your generation and you become the reason for optimism as you demonstrate and as you illustrate a picture of social justice, economic opportunity and equality.”

Lompoc Mayor Bob Lingl presented a proclamation from the city recognizing the organizing committee. Before getting to that business, however, Lingl pointed out that he has been attending MLK Day events in Lompoc for about a decade.

Considering that he is a white man, he said he was honored but also a bit confused when he was first invited by the NAACP to speak at one of the events.

“And then I realized that Dr. King was not fighting just for the African Americans; Dr. King was fighting for everybody,” Lingl said.

The mayor then pointed to King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech — delivered during the 1963 March on Washington — and noted that the effort to achieve that dream, one in which people of all races can live in harmony, is still ongoing.

“To some extent, his dream has come true,” Lingl said, referring to King. “But, as we all know, it is not complete yet. It is up to you and I that are here today to continue to fight to fulfill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s (dream). Together we can do that, but we cannot give up.”

Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh began his comments by noting that police officers were at all of the marches and rallies led by King during the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, the police weren’t exactly friends of the cause, he pointed out, but “fast forward to today and I’ve been asked to speak at a rally, and that’s because of Martin Luther King’s persistence.”

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To illustrate King’s strong convictions, Walsh pointed to the fact that King was considered by some during his lifetime to be an extremist. Rather than get angry at the accusation, King instead professed pride in being an “extremist for love,” Walsh said.

Walsh then turned his attention to the current attitudes in America and suggested that more people should try to follow in King’s footsteps.

“I worry in these troubling times that social media, … the sensational media and extremists of all kinds seek to divide us,” Walsh said. “I say we take a moment to remember Dr. Martin Luther King and remember that statement he made in his letter from Birmingham Jail: Groups are more immoral than individuals.

“If we’d stop seeing ourselves as left or right or democrat or republican, blue, red, black or white, and start seeing each other as individuals, we will honor Martin Luther King’s vision,” he added. “We will peacefully and nonviolently start to make a change and stop this divide. I say we make an active choice to be the type of extremist Dr. King talked about, the type of extremist he was: An extremist in equality and freedom.”

Wiley, who helped bring back the Lompoc MLK Day event in 2016 after there was no celebration in 2015, said he was pleased with the turnout and the atmosphere surrounding the event.

Wiley added that he believed the message shared by many of the speakers — that the fight for justice is just as critical in 2018 as it was in the 1960s — was especially important given the current political climate.

“It’s not only a reflection of history; it’s current events,” Wiley said of the celebration overall. “Yes, we need to remember and bring forth the ideas of the dream, but we need to make it current. We have things happening today with humanity that are unfortunate. It’s going to take those of us living to make a change.

“We don’t have to have a special title or a prefix before our names, we just need to be ourselves and mean love,” he concluded. “It’s all about love.”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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