Claudia Strong leaned on her shovel Saturday and watched as support poles were driven on either side of a spindly Canary Islands pine tree.
Her thoughts, however, went back to Alabama in the spring of 1965, when she marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.
"He was the most wonderful person I've ever known," the South-Central Los Angeles woman said wistfully.
With King's memory still vivid so many years later, Strong said it was imperative to her to be a part of a large tree-planting Saturday along seven miles of Martin Luther King Boulevard. The trees will serve as a living memorial to the slain civil rights leader.
Strong was one of an estimated 3,000 environmentalists, community activists, politicians, children and just plain folks who braved threatening skies to help plant 300 of the sapling pines from Long Beach Boulevard to Rodeo Drive, through the heart of South-Central Los Angeles.
It was part of weeklong festivities leading up to Monday's observance of what would have been King's 61st birthday. King was slain by a sniper's bullet on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.
The tree-planting also is one of the first installments on what is hoped will be 5 million new trees added to Los Angeles thoroughfares.
"The dream is to have an urban forest canopy to shield the environment," said Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, a nonprofit environmental group that organized Saturday's mass planting.
To some, the connection between King and the 300 drought- and smog-resistant pine trees was obscure. To Strong, it was obvious.
"A tree is steadfast, and that was the way Dr. King was. He didn't bend, he didn't give. He just proceeded to do what he had to do. He wouldn't let anybody turn him around," she said, as her co-planters attached the name "Karma" to their 5-foot-tall pine in the 1400 block of King Boulevard.
Willie Alvarez, who will be able to watch "Karma" grow to 60 or 70 feet outside his auto parts store, didn't have much business Saturday, since the curbs were blocked off for work crews, gravel trucks and concrete busters. But he didn't seem to mind.
"The tree purifies the air and gets rid of the smog," Alvarez said in Spanish and nodded approvingly as tree planters asked to fill yet another bucket of water for the tree.
The tree-planting--supported by more than $58,000 in contributions and pledges, donated equipment and materials--is eventually expected to cost more than $130,000, Lipkis said. And TreePeople was hoping more people would be calling its toll-free line, 1-800-TREE-GEO, to adopt a tree at $100 apiece.
Mayor Tom Bradley contributed $100 at a news conference Saturday morning, and challenged City Council members and other city officials to follow his lead. "We should not simply dig a hole this morning," Bradley said. "All of us ought to dig a little deeper in our pockets."
Just across from Christ Baptist Church at La Salle Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Anya Crockett peered from under the brim of her blue corduroy baseball cap, making sure the last clods of dirt were packed just right around the base of her group's tree.
"This is Harriet Tubman," the 42-year-old South Los Angeles woman said, introducing the long-needled pine that barely stood 4 feet tall.
Why Harriet Tubman, the 19th Century abolitionist? "Because she led the underground railroad and it shows that our struggle goes back further than Dr. King," Crockett said. "We want to grow and flourish, just like this tree. We want it to grow and flourish."
Crockett, one of a legion of Southern California Gas Co. employees who volunteered Saturday, said such efforts were important to reinforce King's message of equality, unity and peace among mankind.
"We have a generation growing up that doesn't really understand what Dr. King went through. We need to keep that memory alive."
"I have a 6-year-old, and 20 years from now, I can tell her, 'On this day, 20 years ago, I planted that tree.' It plants a seed for the future."
King Week festivities will be capped Monday with a parade honoring the civil rights activist along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, beginning at 11 a.m. at Crenshaw Boulevard. Los Angeles Sentinel publisher Ruth Washington will be this year's grand marshal.
Others plan an 11 a.m. South African demonstration and march. Sponsored by the Los Angeles Student Coalition and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, the march will begin at the old South African consulate building at Doheny Drive and Wilshire Boulevard and end at the new consulate at 50 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills.