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Fifty Years After Selma

Day of Service and Marches

J.Smith/El HiSpano

Philadelphia –  “Look around, this is Philadelphia!  This is black, brown, red, yellow and white.  This is young and old.”  The anonymous speaker’s colorful and euphoric portrait of the massive crowd that stretched from the National Constitution Center to the Market Street-side of Independence Mall, aptly depicted the closing scenes of the annual Martin Luther King celebration.

In remembrance of the 54-mile trek taken in 1965, from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama led by Rev. King in support of the landmark Voting Rights Act, Monday’s march from the 400 N. Broad Street Philadelphia School district headquarters to 5th and Market, – escorted by hundreds of yellow clad police – was the culmination of an array of service-related and advocacy activities for an MLK day celebration that went under the rubric of “Action,, Resistance and Empowerment.”

Under this banner the message that “Black Lives Matter” and calls for ‘Justice,” were visible; but the prevailing themes of the day were increasing support for education and raising the minimum wage. Signs about raising the minimum to $15/hr and “Jobs With Justice’ were ubiquitous throughout the march.

A school teacher at the city’s Kensington CAPA, Ismael Jimenez noted that even fifty years after Dr. King’s March, that there are “still two Americas.”

“When I ask kids in my classroom how many have been subjected to stop-and-frisk, almost every hand goes up,” said Mr. Jimenez. He added, that he would like to see a return to “local control of the schools.”

Mr. Kenneth Trujillo and Mr. Nelson Diaz, the two first Latino Mayoral candidates in the city’s history, were on hand for kick-off events at Girard College.  Both former City Solicitors, Trujillo and Diaz participated in an effort to produce “Vote Here” or VOTA AQUI” signs in up to 10 languages, that will be used for polling places in the upcoming May primary election.

Expressing the hope that the project would produce a “large voter turnout,” Mr. Diaz, a former Counsel for HUD in the Clinton Administration, told El Hispano that a record turnout would demonstrate “our democracy is working.”

Discussing the Dr. King day, Mr. Diaz also recalled having filed a suit in 1973 to establish “bilingual education” in the city’s schools. An action that, according to Mr. Diaz, not only benefited the growing Puerto Rican community, but the city’s “Asian students” as well.

Beginning with opening ceremonies at Girard College, Senator Robert Casey, Jr., Mayor Michael Nutter and outgoing Lt. Governor Jim Cawley, along with candidates Nelson Diaz and Kenneth Trujillo, set the tone for the day by joining more than 5,000 volunteers in activities. Mr. Trujillo announced his exit from the race Wednesday, citing family matters. With hundreds of handmade banners decorating the Girard College auditorium, the service activities on the floor ranged from promoting voter participation with signs and empty cans to be used in a sculpture, to providing health kits for seniors and knitting pillow cases and coasters for Veterans and the homeless.

Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the King Day of Service, Todd Bernstein, the President of Global Citizen and founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia ‘King Day of Service,’ noted that it was Pennsylvania’s then-Senator Harris Wofford and Congressman John Lewis who were responsible for the legislation that created the M.L. King day.

“In a nation too often divided, we can embrace Dr. King’s legacy by joining together, promoting tolerance and understanding and serving others,” said Mr. Bernstein.

The oldest and largest of the nation’s King Day of Service celebrations, some 135,000 people gathered throughout the Philadelphia region, involved in an estimated 1,800 service projects that included cleaning parks, sweeping streets and creating murals.

While ruminating on the “fifty-plus mile march” that brought together people of “different groups, different ideas and different thoughts,” Mayor Nutter noted that they were all “focused on one thing: They marched so that people had the opportunity to vote.”

Sen. Bob Casey recalled Dr. King’s notion that,  “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.”

Although not referring to recent battles of Voter ID laws, Sen. Casey linked the idea of “service” with voting: “We want to do everything we can not just to knock down the barriers to the right to vote, but to do everything we can to make it easier to vote and to encourage others to vote in 2015.”

As his final act on behalf of the Commonwealth, the outgoing Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley reflected on the work of Dr. King and of the United Way organization of Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey where he will now take the helm as President and CEO, noting that our challenge of “living united” is “not just a slogan but a call to action.”

Citing efforts of United Way staffers to distribute hundreds of literacy and SAT prep-kits throughout the region to aid the reading skills of local youth, Mr. Cawley added,“education is the silver bullet to so many of the social ills that we face today.”

Introduced by Mr. Bernstein as an “extraordinary” leader of the city’s schools, Superintendent Bill Hite spoke of his hopes for the future and rephrasing Martin L. King, said, “I have a dream that we will begin thinking of all of the children here in Philadelphia as not other peoples’ children, but as our own children.”  Mr. Hite then suggested, “we stop focusing on deficits and despair,” and more on “investment and innovation.”

Among the myriad service projects undertaken inside the Girard auditorium, Yolanda of Gateway Health, a Managed Care organization, joined with Leslie Burrell and Marvetta Coleman in preparing health care kits with toiletries for seniors living in shelters. “We’ve been part of this for years, but this is the first time we’ve ever done our own initiative.  Remembering Dr. King and even Cesar Chavez, you think about the powerful legacy they left.”

In a demonstration that preceded by several days the MLK day celebration, Daisy Cruz, District head of the SEIU 32BJ union joined City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown in calling for subcontractors at the Philadelphia Airport to begin raising the minimum wage of their workers.

   In April, City Councilwoman Reynolds Brown, Councilwoman Quinones Sanchez and the rest of Council voted to raise the minimum to $10.88/hr. “These are not teenagers, but fathers and mothers, and even grandfathers and grandmothers who are living paycheck to paycheck,”said SEIU’s Daisy Cruz. “This is about helping workers meet basic needs.”