More than 100,000 people are expected to line Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard this morning for the 19th annual Kingdom Day parade in honor of the slain civil rights leader.
But the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a national organization that King founded, will not be among scores of parade participants.
"Dr. King never led a parade," said the Rev. Norman Johnson, executive director of the conference's Los Angeles chapter.
Johnson has no problem with people celebrating King's birthday with a parade, but he and the organization don't believe it's necessarily the way King would want to be honored.
Instead, chapter representatives will register voters at the parade as part of a program sponsored by the African American Voter Registration, Education & Participation Project. Voter registration represents one path to reaching the conference's goal of "redeeming the soul of America," according to the chapter's leaders.
Today, 40 years after its founding in Los Angeles, the chapter focuses on fighting economic inequities, political marginalization, domestic violence and hate crimes.
The Los Angeles chapter was established seven years after the national organization was formed in 1957. The chapter continued in the tradition of the national organization, which led rallies and protests throughout the South against racial discrimination and violence toward blacks.
Cheryl Faris, a member of the chapter's board, said the organization now serves a community with different issues and attitudes.
"When there are signs that say 'Whites Only,' it's easy to rally around. When there are laws that say you can't vote, it's easy to rally. But when no one says you can't vote, it's harder to rally people," she said. "As it gets more subtle, it's harder to get people to rally."
Instead of mobilizing people for demonstrations, Faris said, the chapter works to empower people. In addition to voter registration, the organization provides assistance to victims of domestic and sexual violence and mediates conflicts between employers and employees, merchants and customers, and landlords and renters.
Johnson said the chapter also takes stands on political issues as another form of empowerment and protest. The chapter held rallies to oppose the Iraq war. It has supported the grocery workers' union in the 4-month-old strike.
Along with a former conference executive director, Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas, and various organizations, the chapter opposed Proposition 54, which would have banned the state from classifying individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, color or national origin. Sixty-four percent of state voters opposed the initiative.
Johnson said King's words and goals went beyond the civil rights issues of the 1960s. "We're still coming to comprehend the breadth and scope of his thoughts and life," Johnson said.
Johnson runs the chapter's day-to-day activities from his church in South Los Angeles, the First New Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. A diverse 24-member board of directors is led by the Rev. James Lawson, the chapter's president who worked with King in the 1960s.
The chapter sponsored a series of events last week to honor King, including an interfaith prayer breakfast and a City Hall dialogue on terrorism and civil liberties. Harry Belafonte will be the keynote speaker at the organization's annual fundraising dinner tonight at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
The Rev. G. Lind Taylor, director of the Hate Crimes Prevention Program, sponsored by the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, said the events are indicative of the chapter's work.
"The whole spirit of the SCLC is love," Taylor said. "Hate is a malignancy. It's cancerous, but it can be cured." Resisting hate and embracing humanity is at the core of King's legacy, he said.
It might not always be evident that organization representatives are involved with community programs, but "they are there," he said. "It's important for a community to have a moral voice willing to say that we need to be righteous and just."