Keynote speaker Dr. Adena Wiliams Loston talks about the present state of the country at the 25th annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy at the SGI-USA World Headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard Monday morning. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SGI AUDITORIUM — On a rainy Monday morning when students, government workers and many others were free to sleep in, several hundred Santa Monica residents instead were at Soka Gakkai International Auditorium to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The event was the 25th annual commemoration put on by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Westside Coalition. Billed as a program of “commitment, renewal and interfaith celebration,” the event featured a range of musical performances, speakers and prayers.

It was also a call to action.

“Unless we do something ourselves, nothing’s going to get done,” Darlene Evans, who chairs the coalition, said in her welcome speech.

The keynote address was delivered by Adena Williams Loston, a former dean at Santa Monica College and current president of St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, Texas.

As a montage of images from King’s life appeared on a screen behind her, Loston told the crowd that while problems persist in society, the election of Barack Obama as the first black president shows there is “hope for a vision” in the United States.

Still, it’s not a bright time for the country, she said.

Rather than focusing on civil rights — the issue that defined King’s life — Loston instead cited a long list of events in the news during the past year that she said show society’s ills.

From the couple that crashed a White House dinner, to the balloon boy hoax in Colorado to Tiger Woods’ fall from grace, the world, in Loston’s view, is in many ways headed in the wrong direction.

“Are we so desperate for attention that it makes us crazy?” she said.

The speaker also directed some of her criticism at the government, knocking U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano for remarks she made defending the nation’s air travel security in the wake of the failed bombing attempt on a passenger plane on Christmas Day. She compared Napolitano’s statements to former President George W. Bush’s praise for Michael Brown, the former director of FEMA, as Hurricane Katrina was unfolding.

She also compared Bernie Madoff, the convicted Wall Street scam artist, to Osama Bin Laden, saying Madoff was “just as destructive to the financial situations of many Americans.”

But the events that reveal society’s shortcomings, she said, are no reason to despair. The Obama presidency, she said, shows that hope for the future can result in great achievements.

She urged people to make Martin Luther King an example in their own lives.

“Like Martin, we must become anchored in a sense of destiny,” she said.

Musical performances at the event were by the Crossroads Jazz Ensemble, members of the Santa Monica High School Chamber Orchestra and soprano Savitri Labensart.

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