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The Rev. William H. Knight sings during the 24th annual Dr. Martin luther King, Jr. Celebration at the SGI Center. (photo by Byron Kennerly)

WILSHIRE BLVD — On the day before the inauguration of the nation’s first black president, hundreds of people gathered here to honor the life of a man whose activism more than 40 years ago helped make the historic election possible.

The celebration on Monday of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 80th birthday focused on how the dreams of one civil rights leader were finally being realized through the installation today of President-elect Barack Obama and how his teachings still apply.

“It’s more than coincidental the celebration of Martin occurs the day before the inauguration,” said Darlene Evans, who chairs the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Westside Coalition.

The organization hosted its 24th annual tribute to the late activist at the SGI-USA World Headquarters Auditorium, featuring musical performances by the Angel City Chorale and The Rev. William H. Knight and recognizing two long-time volunteers who recently died.

The celebration was the culmination of a week’s worth of events, including the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on Jan. 15, which is King’s actual birthday, and a concert on Sunday featuring the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra.

The finale focused on the theme of change, centering around Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

According to the speakers, change was imminent.

“There is a spirit in the room and the spirit is at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 24 hours from now,” Nat Trives, who co-founded the coalition, said.

The keynote address was given by Anwarul Chowdhury, who is the former United Nations under secretary-general and high representative for the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, and small island developing states.

Chowdhury was selected as a last-minute replacement for renown labor organizer Dolores Huerta, who canceled earlier this month after she was invited to attend the inauguration by U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-CA, whom Obama nominated to head the U.S. Department of Labor.

His speech touched on the civil rights leader’s message of peace, explaining how it remains relevant in today’s world filled with war and poverty, quoting King’s famous words, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

Chowdhury, who was born in Bangladesh, has served a long career with the United Nations dating back to 1996, sitting on its Security Council and as the coordinator for the least developed countries in New York.

He called Obama’s inauguration a high point in realizing King’s dream, one in which all children in the nation would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

“We have the responsibility to keep that dream alive so humanity can benefit,” he said.

<!>Remembering volunteers who have passed</!>

The event also honored Clyde Smith and Estella Burnett, two volunteers with the organization who died in recent weeks after battling illnesses.

Smith, a local activist, co-founded the coalition with Trives and served on a number of different nonprofit organizations, including the Rotary Club of Santa Monica and the Pico Neighborhood Association. He was also the executive director of the Neighborhood Redevelopment Corp., which rehabbed housing units in Santa Monica for elderly and low-income families. The organization no longer exists.

He died on Jan. 1.

Burnett was the scholarship chair for the coalition and former teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District. She was responsible for providing scholarships to black students who were graduating from local high schools or transferring from Santa Monica College, presenting them on the day of the annual birthday celebration.

She was a member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and attended the Calvary Baptist Church for more than 50 years. She died on Dec. 28.

The families of Burnett and Smith were honored with a posthumous award.

“Clyde Smith and Estella Burnett were legends in this organization because they rolled up their sleeves and worked,” Trives said.

melodyh@smdp.com

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