There was a distinct feeling of anticipation building among local residents as they filed into the last remaining seats in the Varsity Theatre for Davis’ celebration of Martin Luther King Day on Monday.
“What a thing, really, to be celebrating Dr. King’s birthday and the second inauguration,” said keynote speaker Sujatha Baliga before pausing — interrupted by the applause of a clearly enthusiastic crowd of more than 300 — “of a brilliant African-American president of the United States.”
Baliga, who spoke on restorative justice as it relates to King’s hopes for equality, headlined the 19th annual city-sponsored ceremony. Her words on conflict resolution were never far from an admission of the long road that still lies ahead to achieving the slain civil rights leader’s dream.
The celebration got under way on a dramatic note, with the lights dimmed and 20 actors streaming down the theater aisles, all holding protest signs against a backdrop of photos of King.
A group of community activists organized the theatrics, which included the re-enactment of two apathetic protesters receiving encouragement from others. The performance climaxed with a poem read by Mashood Danmole, who has a personal investment in the King’s message.
Danmole says he was a victim of racial prejudice while working as an engineer at Fortune 500 companies in the Silicon Valley. Now living in Davis, he has observed much more subtle racism, but it’s still there.
He’s hoping events such as Monday’s King remembrance help to remedy Davis’ tendency toward the less overt side of racism. However, he said it’s going to take a continued conversation that breaches the surface of the problem.
“It seems that in many cases, there’s plenty of rallying of the troops, but at the end of the day, nothing gets done,” Danmole added. “We’re still experiencing the issues that fall short of people’s radar.
“I think we’re going to have to get more in depth on the subtleties of everyday life, like how people get treated at the bank, or in the grocery store. As a community, we’re going to have to embrace these subjects and delve into those painful things.”
Between the welcoming dramatics and the keynote speaker was a panel discussion addressing a difficult topic. The group was moderated by Tilahun D. Yilma, a professor of virology at UC Davis, and consisted of Bernita Toney, Cruz Reynoso, Sasha Abramsky and Joe Schwartz.
The discussion — based on “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book — concentrated on the incarceration rates for people of color. The focus was particularly on African-American men, who make up more than 70 percent of inmates nationwide.
After citing statistics that caused some audience members to react with gasps — like 33 percent of African-American men facing incarceration sometime in their lives — the panel focused on solutions to the factors that have created such a disparity. Policy reform to the criminal justice system was examined, among other things.
Local politicians were in attendance to hear the suggestions, including Davis Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk, Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, Davis City Councilman Brett Lee, and Davis Board of Education members Sheila Allen and Tim Taylor.
Wolk offered his own perspective on the state of equality in Davis, and challenged residents to find inspiration to mobilize in the words of King.
“King called life’s most persistent and urgent question ‘What are you doing for others?’ ” Wolk said. “I ask everyone in this room, what are you doing for others? For me, that call to action — that introspection — is much of what this day is all about.”
The event concluded with a folk song performed by three Davis Freedom Riders who marched with King in the 1960s — Dick Holdstock, Terry Turner and the Rev. John Pamperin.
The crowd swayed side to side as they sang along to the tune, and followed the musicians out of the theater and onto the street. Half of the attendees dispersed, and the others were led on a brief Freedom March through downtown Davis.
Pamperin, one of the Freedom Riders, teetered between animated and somber as he marched with the pack. He was emotional because the ceremony was dedicated to former Davis City Councilman Jerry Kaneko, who died last week.
Still, the message behind Monday’s celebration of King resonated with the longtime civil rights activist. “Hopefully, some of the suggestions provided today can be tended to,” Pamperin said.
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052.