WILSHIRE BLVD. The much anticipated keynote speech by Dolores Huerta at this month’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration will have to wait at least another year after the renown labor organizer canceled on the event.

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Westside Coalition announced on Monday that Huerta, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association — later known as the United Farm Workers of America — with Cesar Chavez, would be unable to deliver the keynote address on Jan. 19 because she will be attending the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington D.C. the following day.

Huerta was invited to attend the ceremony by U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-CA, whom Obama recently nominated to head the U.S. Department of Labor.

“I just couldn’t be in two places at the same time,” Huerta said. “I had no idea I was even going to be able to go to the inauguration or be invited.”

The coalition had long considered asking Huerta in the past to give the keynote address at one of the largest King celebrations in Southern California, feeling the civil rights icon was a good fit.

“She has done a lot of great work in California and we thought she would be an exceptional speaker,” Darlene Evans, the chairwoman of the coalition said.

Evans added that there might not be a new keynote speaker, citing the difficulty of finding a replacement during a year when an historic inauguration is on the day following the event.

Past keynote speakers have included Baha’i faith spiritual leaders Firuz Kazemzadeh and Wilma Ellis, who gave the address last year, and Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., the dean of the International Chapel at Morehouse College where King graduated in 1948.

“We’re certainly sad that (Huerta) won’t be with us but also understand the importance of the moment and the conflict in terms of supporting her friend at the inauguration,” Evans said. “We think we will (have) a wonderful celebratory event and maybe she can join us at another time in the future.”

The 24th annual celebration, which will be held at the SGI-USA Auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard, will feature a performance by the Angel City Chorale and tributes to local activist Clyde Smith and Estella Burnett, who served on the coalition’s scholarship committee. Smith died on Jan. 1 after battling an illness and Burnett passed away several weeks ago to cancer.

The main event follows the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on Jan. 15 at the Calvary Baptist Church, featuring speaker Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer and political activist. The coalition will also hold a concert featuring the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra at the SGI-USA Auditorium on Jan. 18.

King, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, would have turned 80 this year.

The celebration will hold special meaning for those in attendance as the first black president will be sworn into office the same week.

“We have taken a giant step forward as a nation and we have confirmed what we are — a land of opportunity and liberty for everybody,” Huerta said.

melodyh@smdp.com

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