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Spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. is marching on

January 15, 1987|GERALD FARIS

Inglewood claims to be one of the first cities in the nation to observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. as an official holiday.

But in 1973, eight years before Inglewood decided to honor King's memory with a day off, Gardena was the first South Bay city to recognize the slain civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner with a city-sponsored celebration.

Now both cities, along with Carson and Los Angeles, have official holidays to honor King. This year it's Monday, although King was actually born 58 years ago today in Atlanta.

"I felt Dr. King had given the country a climate we could live with and I just decided I would go to the City Council and see if I could rally the community behind me, to get this going," said Arthur Johnson, who persuaded the Gardena council to hold the first evening program in King's honor. Johnson, who is black, is a counselor at Hillcrest High School in Inglewood.

Gardena's observance, featuring art, singing and dramatic presentations, has grown to three events over two days. This year, it begins with youth night Friday at 7 at Rowley Memorial Park, 132nd Street and Van Ness Avenue. There will be a parade Saturday, starting at 10 a.m. at Rowley Park and winding up at City Hall. The city's 14th King commemorative service will be held at Nakaoka Community Center, 1700 W. 162nd St., at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Although it may have been in the forefront in declaring King's birthday a city holiday, Inglewood has had difficulty deciding how best to pay tribute to King.

Renaming a downtown street in King's honor was rejected because of the inconvenience of changing business addresses, and the city refrained from naming the grassy pedestrian mall across from the Civic Center for King because drug dealers had given it a bad image.

The next idea was to rename Darby Park in King's honor, but that did not sit well with people who felt that it would slight Raymond V. Darby, a city councilman and mayor in the 1920s and 30s. So there was a compromise in which Darby Park kept its name, but the large recreation building there was renamed the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. King's son spoke at the dedication on King's birthday in 1984.

Last year, the city hit on the idea of a march to re-create the kind of nonviolent demonstrations that marked King's social and political revolution. More than 2,000 people marched and the city hopes that even more will turn out for for the second march on Monday.

It will start at 10 a.m. in the east parking lot of the Forum, Prairie Avenue and 190th Street. The parade will feature marching bands, gospel singers and public officials. It will end at the King center, where a video of King's "I have a dream" speech will be shown. Refreshments will be served and awards presented to senior citizen and student winners of essay, speech and poster contests.

"This really gives people a sense of history, that they are really doing something to commemorate Dr. King's life by retracing his steps, not just going to a program," said Patricia Martel, an assistant to the city manager.

"This is open to anyone who wants to march," Martel said. The city attempts to promote the event throughout the South Bay.

"I'm quite proud of the way Inglewood remembers Dr. King," Councilman Virgle Benson said. But critics contend that Inglewood should have a street or a park honoring King, who was assassinated in 1968.

And some residents, such as former King associate and frequent council critic Mildred McNair and businessman Frank Denkins, complain that the celebration committee--contrary to King's civil rights ideals--excludes people who are not political allies of the mayor and council.

Caroline Coleman, vice president of the Inglewood Unified School District board and a member of the committee, rejects the charge as "unfair." She said the committee--where people serve until "we die off or resign"--was appointed by the mayor and council from among those "who expressed an interest in it when it started."

No King observances are planned in the South Bay portions of Los Angeles, but a parade is scheduled to begin at noon Monday at Crenshaw and Exposition boulevards. It will proceed along Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Exposition Park.

Carson will remember King on Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. at Avalon Park, 700 E. Gardena Blvd. Displays, rides, music and dramatic events--including a reading by Khalilah Ali, the former wife of boxing great Muhammad Ali, and an appearance by Los Angeles Raider Reggie McKenzie--are scheduled.

City spokesman Al Vollbrecht said the observance is a special project of Avalon Park, which is in the predominantly black section of Carson.

Although black people have provided much of the energy to get King's achievements recognized in the South Bay, and the cities involved have large minority populations, organizers say the honors go beyond racial lines.

"This is community-wide, not just black people, and it has always been supported," said Johnson of the Gardena event.

"Our celebration is for all of Inglewood, whether black or white," said Councilman Tabor. "Dr. King . . . touched the whole world."

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