IN THE MOMENT: Gerald C. Rivers gives his best Martin Luther King Jr. impersonation while reciting one of MLK's speeches Monday morning at the Soka Gakkai International Auditorium. City officials, celebrities and residents celebrated the legacy of the civil rights giant. (Paul Alvarez Jr. editor@smdp.com)

IN THE MOMENT: Gerald C. Rivers gives his best Martin Luther King Jr. impersonation while reciting one of MLK’s speeches Monday morning at the Soka Gakkai International Auditorium. City officials, celebrities and residents celebrated the legacy of the civil rights giant. (Paul Alvarez Jr. editor@smdp.com)

WILSHIRE BLVD — The voice of Martin Luther King was present, both literally and figuratively, in the SGI Auditorium Monday.

City officials, celebrities, and hundreds of residents came to celebrate the legacy of the civil rights giant just over 50 years after he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

The obvious highlight of the program was Gerald C. Rivers, a voice actor who performs as King. Rivers has 20 King speeches committed to memory but there’s one that he usually stays away from.

“I often avoid the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech because it tends to make people nostalgic,” he said. “They start smiling and they remember. Kids will start quoting it and saying the speech with me if you say it too long. What I realized is that most of us have never really listened to the words of that speech.”

But Rivers acquiesced, pausing for a moment to let Martin Luther King wash over him and booming out his most famous words.

Rivers received multiple standing ovations and accolades from audience members who heard King give the speech on Aug. 28, 1963.

“Never in a million would I have thought I’d be standing on a stage right after Martin Luther King,” said actor Tim Robbins, who accepted the Community Light Award on behalf of his Actors’ Gang program directly following Rivers.

“It brought me back there,” said Wheeler H. Taylor, III, who listened to the speech when it was first given. “He was very good.”

Taylor said he wished that the youth were more engaged with King’s legacy. Most schools were closed on Monday in honor of King, but the auditorium was largely filled with older adults, not students.

“I think if people listened to his message, a lot of this neighborhood violence would end,” Taylor said. “Hopefully, the word will spread and some of the streets will be safer.”

Lori Williams, a Santa Monica resident, had a similar sentiment. She was energized by Rivers’ performance but she wished more kids were there to see it.

“Each generation loses a little bit,” she said. “Just like this generation has lost the ability to talk. There’s a social disconnect and as we go further and further away people will lose the inner part, the heart, the ability to talk, the ability to feel other people.”

This lack of communication combined with the aging population of folks from King’s era could fade the collective memory, she said.

“That’s what they need to get back to: the feeling,” she said. “What if you don’t have grandmothers who sit there, teaching and telling the story? My mom is from Baltimore and my father is from the South. After my son, who is going to tell those stories? It takes something like this to bring the experience back.”

Half a dozen students from area schools got awards and scholarships for their social involvement.

Former Santa Monica Mayor Nat “Mr. Santa Monica” Trives handed out an award to a Culver City High School student in honor of his mother, Lillie Bell Blakley.

It was the 29th annual celebration of King’s legacy hosted by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Westside Coalition.

 

dave@smdp.com