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King's Legacy at Forefront of Remembrances : Anniversary: A less than expected crowd honors the slain civil rights leader. The event is used to appeal for calm in L.A.


Twenty-five years ago in Gary, Ind., James Page's eyes filled with tears at the news that Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy had been cut short by an assassin's bullet.

On Sunday, at a Los Angeles commemoration of King's death, Page, now 75, remembered feeling lost at the time, not knowing "where we would go from here."

Sadly, he said, the direction is now as clear as his memory of the day King died.

"I think we've gone backward," he said.

The part-time librarian and his wife were among a disappointing turnout of several hundred people at an Exposition Park ceremony to honor the slain civil rights leader. Organizers had anticipated from 2,000 to 5,000 spectators.

The commemoration, coordinated by the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was one of dozens nationwide in memory of King, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at age 39 in Memphis.

In Los Angeles, civil rights leaders used the occasion to plead that citizens remain peaceful when the verdicts are announced in the case of four Los Angeles police officers accused of violating Rodney G. King's civil rights.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he died, spoke at the Exposition Park rally and at local churches. He urged President Clinton to call a town hall meeting before the verdicts, focusing on the future of South-Central Los Angeles.

"There is a police plan, but there is not justice and economic development plans," Jackson said. "The hottest spot in America today is South-Central L.A."

David Alessandri, 31, said he attended the rally because he wanted to do something more than watch the King commemorations on television news.

"Especially in L.A., there's been a myth of the melting pot," said Alessandri, a salesman. "But the racism here is a lot more subtle. People think racism is something that happens elsewhere. It was laid bare here a year ago."

Sunday's 25th anniversary was marked nationwide by emotional pleas to honor King's legacy. In Atlanta, his widow, Coretta Scott King, led a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of the Nobel laureate and urged people to join a civil rights march on Washington on Aug. 28. The march will mark the 30th anniversary of King's classic "I Have a Dream" speech for racial harmony.

"African-Americans still suffer pervasive economic discrimination," Coretta King said. "The black-white income gap has narrowed only slightly since 1968. Our unemployment rate is still almost triple the figure for white workers. And no African-American heads a Fortune 500 company today."

At a rally marking the anniversary in New York City, children were asked to turn in their toy guns, and in Texas, commemorations were held statewide.

A weekend symposium for scholars and civil rights leaders took place in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum, the site of the former Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated.

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