STOCKTON — When civic and religious leaders unveil a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. here today, they will do what dozens of others have done before them in towns large and small: They will praise King's quest for racial justice and celebrate their city's diversity.
But take a closer look and a story of Stockton comes glinting off King's strapping bronze frame. That head twisted slightly to the left with a searching gaze, that's the Rev. Robert Williams. That hand, palm facing upward, was modeled on former Vice Mayor Floyd Weaver.
"He measured all of us, so we're all in it," Weaver, 71, said of the Los Angeles sculptor of King's likeness.
For Weaver and other black ministers and community leaders in this city south of Sacramento, the dedication of the statute is a milestone. They have been pushing for broad civic recognition for King since the 1970s, raising a dollar here and a dollar there for the promised statue for 20 years. It is, they proudly note, Northern California's first life-size likeness of the civil rights pioneer.
Their struggle is in keeping with this delta city's storied past: African Americans planted roots here in the Gold Rush of the 1850s and held on fast, staking a claim as one of California's first black communities. Today, the two black churches established in the mid-19th century are still going strong and have spawned more than 150 others. African Americans make up nearly 13% of the 260,000 residents of this multiethnic city, where the first Sikh temple in the United States was built in 1912 and which once had the largest Filipino community outside Manila.
Along the way, black leaders have fought many battles: for desegregated schools, affirmative action in government contracting and hiring, and for political representation. Honoring King joined the list of causes long ago. First came a holiday in 1985, then the renaming of Civic Center Plaza. A fountain was rebuilt with a platform to hold the statue, and squares of the plaza symbolically sold for $10 a pop to finance the artwork. But the effort sputtered.
To pay for annual celebrations of King's birthday, organizers dipped into statue funds for loans. Committee members came and went. Some died. For a time, it seemed the statue would remain a phantom. Then, Weaver and the ministers revived the effort. Mayor Gary Podesto pressed big donors for help. The city added the statue to its list of public art projects, kicking in for the pedestal and installation. Today, with a yank on the curtain cord and the bellowing praise of Stockton's youth gospel choir, the voyage will be complete.
"I can say to the Lord that I'm ready to be offered up -- if I can just see this," said Pastor Corneilus E. Taylor, 75, who dispatched Stockton ministers to Montgomery, Ala., to march with King after the 1955 murder of black teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi.
African Americans arrived in Stockton around the time of the city's incorporation in 1850. Some came as slaves, promised a route to freedom if their labors paid off in the Mother Lode, said Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, a Cal State Sacramento professor.
As a port city and gateway to the southern mines, Stockton thrived, luring immigrants from around the globe, said Robert Benedetti, executive director of the Jacoby Center for Community and Regional Studies at Stockton's University of the Pacific, which has collected oral histories from descendants of Stockton's pioneering families.
African Americans soon bought property, often close to whites. By 1855, two black churches had appeared. By 1859, one of the state's first black schools was founded when white parents demanded segregation. Stockton's African Americans, Wilson Moore notes, participated actively in the Colored Convention movement, gathering community leaders to counter restrictions on blacks in the courts, public education and elsewhere.
Despite hostile state law, Stockton's early history betrays a level of integration peculiar to mining towns. Sperry's flour mills and Wells Fargo were among the large employers that hired African Americans, wrote Frances Baltich of Stockton in a self-published work on the community's early years. Annual festivals to celebrate President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation were attended by a cross section of residents.
But as people of all races flocked here to pick fruit and work in the shipyards and waterworks, tensions grew. By 1938, when Weaver arrived, blacks were relegated either to the eastern edge of town, or the "Boss Tract" in the west -- where cannon fire was pervasive, the land was contaminated, and fog turned the ground to muck.
"I was out east," recalled Weaver, who eventually became Stockton's first black junior high school principal, "with the goats."
The Rev. Berry Means, now 85, arrived in 1962 as a World War II veteran who had fought in a desegregated military. "I got here and I couldn't believe what was going on," said Means.