Peace. Hope. Service. Those are just a few of the words that some local prominent African-Americans associate with the man who will be celebrated across the nation on Monday.

In light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaching, a few community leaders expressed their feelings on how race relations have changed over the years, and they all shared the same thought: We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a ways to go.

“I can live next door to you. I can apply for a job, go to the same bathroom you go to. I can vote, but have we really and truthfully addressed race relations in Bakersfield and in this country?” said Wesley Crawford Sr., chairman of the MLK Jr. Committee and associate minister at Greater Evangelist Temple Church.

While Crawford said that African-Americans have more choices and opportunities now than they did during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, more work is needed to bring equality.

“In Bakersfield, it’s kind of hard,” he said. “We don’t have one elected official that’s African-American. We don’t have one school named after one of the greatest men in history. It’s like that in a lot of towns across Kern County.”

Crawford said he believes the county lacks some of the racial and ethnic diversity found in other areas.

“If you go to someplace like Atlanta, Georgia, you see a lot of diversity in every facet of that society,” he said. “You don’t really see that here.”

Keith Wolaridge, president and board member at the Panama-Buena Vista School District board, said he believes education remains a major challenge for African-Americans locally and nationwide.

“We must continue to put education at the forefront of our agenda,” he said. “Education gives one the license to compete in this life. All problems that face the black community stem from a lack of education. We need to encourage our youth to take advantage of the opportunities that come to them.”

The MLK holiday comes around for the first time since Donald Trump became president of the United States last year.

Additionally, discussions about racism and race relations have been bubbling up due to events such as last August's white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., during which one woman was killed.

Richie Heath-Soberanis, interim executive director at the Kern County Black Chamber of Commerce, said that when it comes to racial tensions, he doesn’t believe they have changed all that much over the years.

“What went on back then is still going on now,” he said. “The issue is more at the forefront now because of technology and social media. We’re able to learn more about things, good and bad.”

However, Heath-Soberanis said the social acknowledgement of what African-Americans have gone through and issues they are still facing helps somewhat.

Crawford said he believes even some of the president’s own words about people of color, just as recently as this week, are causing a rift in the nation.

“Our president has been a privileged person all his life,” Crawford said. “In all his years, he’s never really ventured down to talk to the people who are disadvantaged. He’s always been at the top. He’s dividing the country that MLK brought together, and I’m saying this as a Republican. I think we’re starting to go backwards rather than forwards.”

“We have to be diligent that we don’t regress to the days of old,” Wolaridge said.

Heath-Soberanis said it’s not just the president who is responsible for improving race relations.

“We can’t put the blame all on one person,” he said. “It’s up to Congress, it’s up to everyday people to take action.”

Due to violent protests and similar events that have happened over the past year, Crawford said he believes the nation is beginning to forget what Martin Luther King was trying to achieve.

“Martin taught the importance of nonviolent resistance and civility,” he said. “We’re forgetting that lesson, and the more we lose it, the more we are likely to forget him and what he stood for.”

Crawford said he believes community events on MLK Day are one way to help keep King’s messages alive.

“Dr. King was about love, he was about peace, standing up when you see something wrong. He was a family man who loved his family and community,” he said. “As long as I’m alive, I’m going to try to keep his legacy alive.”

While tensions may be flaring up across the nation, Crawford said he still has faith that the country will heal over time.

“I think eventually we will come together. There’s nothing we can’t do together,” he said. “I’m hoping that our president sees the light — not the light of power, but the light of this country and the diversity it has always represented.”

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 661-395-7368. Follow him on Twitter: @JLuiz_TBC.

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