EVERETT – Celebrated civil rights attorney Morris Dees said Thursday the road to equality is often traveled two steps backward for every three steps forward.
Dees gave the keynote address at the Everett Events Center during Snohomish County’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
After a year in which the county saw several alarming expressions of hate, including two cross burnings, hundreds of residents stepped forward to commemorate King’s message of peace, love and unity.
Few seats remained in the Everett Conference Center, which was packed with about 800 – four times as many as attended last year’s King celebration. Organizers even had to turn a few people away, Everett spokeswoman Kate Reardon said.
The program drew Gov. Christine Gregoire, settling into her new job on her first full day in office. She received a standing ovation when she took the podium. Outside, half a dozen protesters called for a revote in the controversial election, which she won by 129 votes.
The governor urged the crowd to get involved and remember King’s vision of a future free of injustice, hate and discrimination.
“As I think about that vision, I have to say to you, we have work to do,” she said, echoing her inauguration speech on Wednesday.Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., is known for his work fighting white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations.
In a country deeply divided, there is a battle” going on, he said.
“Whose America is this, and whose version of America is going to prevail?” he said.
Dees said there are 750 hate groups in the United States, and that it’s “not just the Klan in the deep South.”
Two of his last big cases were against white supremacist groups in Hayden Lake, Idaho, and Portland, Ore.
“But most hate crimes are not committed by hate groups,” he said. “They’re acts of thoughtlessness and intolerance.”
Dees spoke of two Arlington High School students who in March burned a cross on a black pastor’s lawn. They probably didn’t know what they were doing, he said, but it’s important to note what came next.
“Four students reached out to the victims and rallied the school,” Dees said. “That’s the kind of responses Americans are making. That’s how I know that we will succeed and we will overcome.”
The powerful and the powerless, the poor, the homeless, the sons and daughters of former slaves, and the sons and daughters of former slave owners need to “sit down at the table of personhood and truly learn to love one another,” he said.
“That’s what this thing is all about, folks,” Dees said.
“It’s in all of our best interests to carry on the dream of Martin Luther King and create an America where justice truly rolls down like water.”
Dees’ speech marked the end of a day full of events that began before the sun came up.
Community leaders, residents and “Prodigies for Peace” essay contest winners gathered at Everett Station Thursday morning for a diversity breakfast.
Dees also said a few words there. Quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, he urged people to carry out human rights on a small scale – in schools, the workplace, the community and the home.
“If they don’t find it in these places, then they’re going to look in vain to find it in the larger world,” he said.
After the breakfast, one of the essay contest winners, Paul Koenig, 12, said he was glad for the opportunity to honor King.
King’s “ideas were good. The best was that he took action about it,” Paul said. “Lots of other people had those ideas, too, but didn’t do that.”
At noon, members of the Everett Community College Black Student Union – linked arm-in-arm with Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson – led a spirited, 500-person march through downtown Everett.
Esineya Chigaga, a pre-med student from Zambia and co-president of the Black Student Union, said the world should more closely follow King’s teachings of using nonviolent means to achieve success.
“Together we rise, divided we fall,” she said.
Marchers arrived at the Everett Events Center to the drums and singing of the Tulalip Tribes Canoe Family. The Everett High School jazz band and the Everett Dance Theatre hip-hop dancers also rallied the crowd.
After the program, J.J. Frank, minority achievers director for the YMCA of Snohomish County, said he was inspired to start planning some community discussions on racial relations.
“We must continue,” Frank said. “If we don’t ride the energy in this room and come together, it would be a missed opportunity.”
Reporter Jennifer Warnick: 425-339-3429 or email@example.com.