Hundreds of people gathered in Merced to honor the late Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, the national day set aside to observe the birthday of the civil rights trailblazer.
Junior high bands played, marchers chanted and small groups gathered to watch along the road where people walked to carry on the message of peace that King was so well known for.
“This is a great day, man,” said Buddy Wiggins, 76, as he watched marchers of all ages and races. “It’s all people, not just blacks, because that’s what (King) was about.”
Wiggins, who lives in Atwater, remembers a time in Merced when he was expected to stay south of the railroad tracks. He went to school with white children, but people of different skin colors didn’t mingle outside of the classroom.
He said the first time he saw King on TV was probably the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. An estimated 250,000 people marched, the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital.
“I was really impressed,” he said. “He was a black man that was trying to get something going – not just for blacks, but for all people.”
People of different cultures and ethnicities walked along the street in Merced named for the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Some held signs, others chanted or played musical instruments.
A few dozen people, most of them children, carried the Freedom Blanket, a quilt made by past members of the Boys & Girls Club and a tradition in Merced.
Mary Ann Reynolds, 72, of Merced said she has marched in the procession each of the past five years with her granddaughter, 10-year-old Emily. She said she’s “shocked” to think back and realize she knew so little about King while growing up in Alameda, where she remembers meeting few black people.
It wasn’t until she reached college that she learned about the civil rights leader, who is known for his message of nonviolence and equality. “What an amazing man he was,” she said. “And it wasn’t just about segregation. It was about poverty. It was about the Vietnam War.”
She said King was more forward thinking than most anyone else at the time. “His whole understanding of where we were as a country was so much deeper,” she said.
Some Merced marchers chanted “Do you have a dream?” while others responded “I have a dream,” a reference to King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
Still other marchers held signs that called into question the city’s handling of homeless issues. Other signs read, “All Lives Matter,” a popular cry for justice used in protests against police brutality.
The march in honor of King continued until it reached the Merced County Fairgrounds. Dances and music, most of them featuring children, peppered the ceremony.
Though the day was a tribute to King, organizers also took time to sing the praises of Bishop Dwight Amey Sr., who has retired after 19 years on the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee.
Organizers said Amey has helped carry on the legacy of King through the marches and teaming with others to rename J Street in 1993 to Martin Luther King Jr. Way. They said he and others had the courage to push for the change despite threatening letters from opponents.
To honor him, a number of his grandchildren serenaded him while he sat on the fairgrounds stage, wiping tears from his eyes.
Amey, who grew up in Fairmead, said he had a dream not unlike King’s dream of unity.
“I always said, within myself, if I do anything on a community level, it would be to bring people together so we could live in peace and harmony, and respect one another,” he said, addressing the audience. “And that’s what has happened for the last 19 years, and I thank you for that opportunity.”