By Dennis J. Freeman
LOS ANGELES — The county commemorated the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago with a ceremony March 31 in the Baldwin Hills where a grove of trees was planted in honor of King.
Several prominent Los Angeles officials and leaders, led by county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, took part in the memorial tree grove ceremony honoring the civil rights leader who was killed by James Earl Ray April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Tree Grove sits atop the highest peak in the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Park. Several hundred people, including Compton Mayor Aja Brown, state Sen. Steven Bradford, Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson and the Rev. James Lawson Jr., who served as the keynote speaker, attended the two-hour ceremony.
“We honor him,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We honor his history, his contribution, his message. He was, as you well know, an awesome orator. He was an historic activist … just 39 years of age. Dr. King accomplished more than most of us can imagine achieving in a lifetime. We are all better for it. The nation is better for it. The world is better for it.”
The accolades for King didn’t stop with Ridley-Thomas. With several musical pauses, Harris-Dawson, the city’s Eighth District representative, and Lawson, who was a vital cog in the civil rights movement, gave stirring reminders on the legacy of King.
Harris-Dawson used a quote from King that he believes is timely for today.
“The quote I am asked to talk about was a quote from Dr. King that says, ‘There comes a point when silence is the same as complicity,’” Harris-Dawson said. “That means, at a certain point, if you see something and you don’t say something, it’s almost as bad as if you’re doing something. And so, as we remember that quote, I’m going to remind everybody as we celebrate today, there’s a tree grove, it’s is a very nice event.
“But when Dr. King was saying something, it wasn’t always welcomed. I’m proud to be a graduate of Morehouse College, inspired to go to Dr. King’s alma mater. … Morehouse College itself, banned Martin Luther King from the campus because he wouldn’t be silent. That’s the part that’s easy to forget. The city of Los Angeles itself said, ‘Don’t land at our airport. We don’t want you in this town.’ And today, we have a monument in the middle of our city in his honor.”
Harris-Dawson’s speech was just a warm-up to Lawson’s uplifting conclusion to the ceremony.
Instead of the civil rights movement, Lawson said he prefers that the movement be called the Rosa Parks-Martin Luther King Movement.
“The civil rights movement is too vague and doesn’t tell the truth in the life that I remember I was living for 25 or so years,” Lawson said. “So, I prefer the term Rosa Parks-Martin Luther King Movement in order to specify what Martin Luther King represents and what Rosa Parks represented or those who were engaged in that struggle.”
It was Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger that set in motion the call for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, officially kicking off the civil rights movement.
“King was elected by a group of people who had just launched a bus boycott,” Lawson said. “That bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, was 95 percent, if not 99 percent complete, 50,000 black folks who decided that they were tired (of) the nation and Montgomery moving towards a segregated life, segregated by race and color, segregated by religion, segregated by national origin, segregated by all sorts of mythologies about the human race and about our country that have long divided the country and not allow four million people to have a breath of fresh air.”