Hundreds of people marched to the Federal Building in Downtown Seattle on Monday, January 18 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in outrage over the continued injustices in America nearly half a century after his assassination.
The 34th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration, co-chaired and organized by Larry Tukes and Bobby Alexander, began with speeches and workshops at Garfield High School. The morning’s events were followed by a march to rally at the Jackson Federal Building. Marchers arrived at the rally shortly after 1:30 p.m. to the sound of live music performed by Jerrell Davis, Celestine Ezinkwo, and Derrick White of CryOut!, a nonprofit that uses music, dance, and arts to empower local youth.
The afternoon rally involved calls to action and social justice speeches made to a cheering crowd. Speakers emphasized the need to remember a more complete picture of Dr. King, including his anti-war stance and increasing criticism of capitalist systems near the end of his life. Speakers also called for unity among our diverse communities in working toward a more equitable system.
API community activist and professional speaker John Eklof was the first on stage. In an impassioned speech, Eklof challenged government values, taking issue with how federal and local elected leaders eulogize Dr. King to avoid addressing real, ongoing civil rights problems.
“A lot of times, you hear these government officials talking about Dr. King as their hero; you hear a lot of conservatives talking about, ‘Dr. Martin Luther King would have did this and would have done that.’ They use Dr. King, to be honest, to co-opt his message, to sugarcoat it, to water it down, and to go and use that against black people. To go and use that against protestors, when you know damn well if Dr. Martin Luther King was alive, he wouldn’t be with you! He would be out in the streets protesting,” said Eklof.
Eklof argued that the “cherry-picking” of Dr. King’s message to exclude his opposition to the Vietnam War and his fight for more equitable economic structures reflects efforts to avoid systemic change or critical thought. Eklof suggested that if Dr. King were alive today, “he would be protesting police brutality. He’d be going against all of those things.”
Instead of continuing to promote the existing, watered-down narrative of Dr. King, Eklof called for our communities to pick up the civil rights fight where he left off. Eklof said of Dr. King: “He was gonna march on Washington and ask a complete restructuring of the economic system. He wasn’t gonna beg for minimum wage. He wasn’t gonna ask for no jobs. He was looking to have a revolution, that’s what he was talking about.” Eklof closed to cheering applause.
The next speaker was Zarna Joshi, co-founder of Women of Color Speak Out, a collective of women of color activists in the environmental justice movement. Joshi reiterated Dr. King’s dedication to revolutionary change, sharing this quote from his Time to Break Silence Speech: “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”
Joshi highlighted Dr. King’s belief that “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” would continue to thrive in an economic system that places greater value on property than on people. She emphasized the need to unite against the system that created climate change and is leading to “genocide for the Global South and for people of color all over this world.” Joshi argued that this system of inequality and destruction “is a system of capitalism. It is a system of racism. It is the same system that MLK was saying we must dismantle.”
Joshi expressed inspiration looking at the number of people who had gathered in solidarity to continue Dr. King’s fight for justice. Speaking to the emotions running through the crowd, Joshi said: “We’re angry, and we’re frustrated at the system, and at the same time, we have love in our hearts. We’re doing this for love. And what I am saying is that this revolution must be a revolution of love. It must be a revolution of spirit. It must be a revolution honoring that legacy of Dr. King.”
Next on stage were students of the Ida B. Wells School for Social Justice, an alternative high school run through the University of Washington that focuses on teaching social justice, equity, and empowerment. Oscar Overlund, a former student and graduate, underscored the value of the school in producing bold leaders. Overlund expressed frustration at the Seattle Public School District’s decision to “essentially … shut down” the Ida B. Wells School and Middle College High School at High Point Center. Both the Ida B. Wells School and the High Point Middle College offer at-risk youth and students who have previously dropped out of traditional high schools a second chance to earn their diploma in a small classroom environment.
Overlund pointed to the Simon Property Group as being behind the restructuring of the Ida B. Wells School’s curriculum and the displacement of long-term teachers like Roger Rigor. He announced supporters’ intentions to hold a protest outside of the Seattle Public Schools’ headquarters located in SoDo on Wednesday, inviting all to attend and fight for schools that offer social justice curriculum to at-risk youth.
Nikkita Oliver, an activist, poet, and lawyer, spoke next about her experiences working with youth of color in the criminal justice system. Oliver said: “As an attorney, on a regular basis I see young black and brown people brought in, charged, and then basically given time upon time upon time, and never given a second chance. In the juvenile court system, I see young white folks come in, who just like the young black and brown folks that I represent, deserve a second chance. And they’re given diversion programs, and they’re welcome into a net that works, because someone looks at them and says, ‘You are not property, you are somebody. You are a person, and you deserve the opportunity to learn from your mistakes.’ I think all young people deserve that opportunity, and I cannot pretend that our justice system actually works for black and brown folks.”
She challenged audience members to confront both systemic and internal racism. Oliver argued: “It is not enough to get together on MLK Day, to give rousing speeches, to clap for each other. To say, ‘I love you,’ today, and tomorrow, I’m going to walk on the other side of the street when you pass by me. … We must hold our politicians accountable. We must hold the judges accountable. We must hold the court system accountable. We must hold the education system accountable. We must hold police accountable. But more importantly, we must hold ourselves accountable.”
Oliver called upon onlookers to honestly address the pervasive, underlying current of racism in the Pacific Northwest, stating: “If we are truly going to create a place where everybody gets to live as a dignified human being, we must acknowledge what has been, we must acknowledge what is, so we can build what we want to see.”
“Seattle, we ain’t that progressive,” said Oliver to cheering and clapping. She referenced the treatment of two women from the Black Lives Matter movement who disrupted Bernie Sanders’s speech last August. Oliver said of the incident, “We saw the ugly come out of our city. We saw racism come out of our city. We saw injustice come out of our city. We cannot stand for it. If we allow Seattle to be progressive in face, but racist in actuality, we allow the rest of this country to act the exact same way.”
Oliver ended by asking audience members to think about what they would do to advance justice after leaving the rally. She urged everyone to “remember there are black and brown, queer, trans bodies, street youth, poor people who are always targeted by this system every day that they leave their house. … If you have power and privilege, what will you do with it? Be responsible. Stand up for those who haven’t had the opportunity to stand up for themselves. And when they finally get on their feet and they find their voice, get out of the way and let them speak.”
Miriam Padilla, a member of the Libertad para Nestora Salgado committee and an alumnus of Ida B. Wells School, spoke next about the injustices enacted upon immigrants and refugees. She suggested that many immigrants and refugees who come to the United States from Central America, Mexico, and the Middle East are fleeing war and violence. Padilla spoke of the poverty immigrants face in developing countries due to unjust trade laws imposed by the United States and other world powers.
Concerning refugees from the Middle East, Padilla said: “It should be remembered that most of the victims of ISIS are themselves Muslims and Arabs. … Thousands of children are dying as the result of war and terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world.”
Padilla implored listeners to not give into further racism, fear, and bigotry following the Paris attacks. “We must do everything we can to stop our governments from using terrorism, and the fear of terrorism, as an excuse for anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-immigrant hysteria,” she said.
Padilla also reminded the audience that Dr. Martin Luther King was an anti-war activist. “Dr. King spoke out in opposition to the war in Vietnam,” she said. “He reminded us that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.” Padilla argued that our government should be helping more refugees safely enter the United States, instead of restricting immigration out of fear.
City Councilmember Kshama Sawant then stepped up to the podium. Sawant reiterated Dr. King’s investment in fighting not only for people of color, but also for the working class and those living in poverty. Sawant said that the established leadership felt threatened by Dr. King’s push for a more equitable distribution of wealth. She suggested following in his footsteps, saying, “Our movement has to become dangerous to the establishment.”
Sawant argued that people must work together in order to change the existing structure. “The best way of oppressing people is divide and conquer,” she said. “If we are to really grow powerful enough that we are dangerous to this system, then we have to be united across all races, across all ethnicities, across national origin. Because our enemy is not each other, but the system of capitalism and those who uphold it.”
Councilmember Sawant closed by reiterating that near the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King was increasingly “drawing socialist conclusions.” She shared a quote from a speech Dr. King made to the Negro American Labor Council in 1961: “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth in this country for all God’s children.”
The final speaker was Erin Jones, Tacoma School District Director of AVID. Jones related her story of coming to America from Europe as a child. She was surprised to discover that other children of color were unfamiliar with black leaders and innovators like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou.
Jones decided to run for the position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction based on her belief that “each of our children—our black children, our Vietnamese children, our Native American children—deserve to learn about their histories, through the lens of the positive histories. Not the lens of the overcomer; the victor. Not as victim; we are victors.”
Spoken word pieces were performed by Kai Talbert and Victor Pierce. The rally ended with Jerrell Davis leading the crowd in an assata chant. Davis emphasized the need for continued solidarity and long-term commitment to social justice.