Although Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed more than 50 years ago, many say much work still needs to be done to realize his vision for the country.
Just ask Gregory Tatum, a local pastor and recent City Council candidate, who was born in Memphis, and whose grandfather and uncle attended King’s last public speech in the city before he was gunned down.
In the speech, King said he has “been to the mountaintop” and seen the “promised land.” Although he said he did not know if he personally would live to get to the promised land, he told his listeners “we as a people” would live to see it too.
A day later, he was shot while on the balcony of a local motel, sparking riots across the country as citizens mourned the loss of the Baptist minister who had become the face of the civil rights movement.
“It impacted me a great deal, witnessing a lot of the looting, a lot of the uprising, a lot of burning of buildings, it’s so vivid,” Tatum, who was living in Chicago at the time, said of the aftermath of King’s assassination. “He died violently. He died the way he did not advocate. Looking at it today, and even looking at what happened Jan. 6, we see that nothing has really changed.”
In Bakersfield, several community events took place Monday to help continue King’s legacy, and work in a small way to bring about the change the civil rights leader would have wanted to see.
“When we think about what Dr. Martin Luther King really fought for, it’s been watered down to be palatable for a lot of people,” Arleana Waller, MLKcommUNITY Initiative founder, said during a community meal in east Bakersfield. “Really his platform was economic justice, economic equality for Black people. And when we look at this community, this used to be a Black community. So it’s important for us to show up because stories are important to hope, and if we don’t show up to tell these stories, we can’t really feel hope. And if we don’t have hope, we can’t feel the revolution of change that’s needed economically.”
Put on in partnership with Caught Up The Game and Christ First, Monday’s event attracted dozens of community members, along with State Sen. Shannon Grove, Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh, City Councilman Eric Arias, Nicole Parra, who is running for Rep. David Valadao’s congressional seat and Democratic Central Committee Chair Christian Romo.
“As a community, one of my hopes and dreams is that every person can remember Dr. Martin Luther King, not as an advocate for Blacks, but as an advocate for world peace,” said Christ First Pastor Josephate Jordan, who has been organizing the event for more than 20 years. “It’s important that we spread that word to this community and wherever we have a voice to be heard.”
Earlier that day, another group of volunteers gathered at the nearby David Nelson Pocket Park to clean up local streets, distribute IKEA-donated easels to children in the Bakersfield City School District and put the finishing touches on a community mural.
Organized by nonprofits Children First and The Hub of Bakersfield, the event sought to not only clean the neighborhood, but to enliven a community that is in the midst of something of a resurgence.
“Drive down Niles, you can see how this neighborhood is completely changing,” said volunteer Gabe Ulloa, who grew up nearby. “There’s lots of stuff that happens in this park. It’s almost like it’s a beacon of light for a neighborhood that needs it the most.”
To help brighten a place that has struggled with graffiti and homelessness, The Hub commissioned the Bloom Mural underneath the Beale Street overpass depicting bright green foliage and girls who live in the area.
On Monday, volunteers got their chance to leave their own permanent mark on the mural. Children and creative adults spent part of their time painting the one piece of the mural that remains to be completed.
“It’s one thing to have artists come in and create public art, which is wonderful, but there’s something special about including and inviting members of the community to participate in the creation of that artwork,” said City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, who is chairman of The Hub’s board and is the executive director of Children First. “Not only does it create a sense of buy in among community members, but also it adds something to the art piece itself, it tells a much richer story that there are so many hands involved in the creation of the piece.”