With MLK Day around the corner, Santa Monica prepares to recognize the contributions of local Black leaders and reinvigorate the community’s support of Dr. King’s teachings.

Although members of the MLK Westside Coalition chose to shift the celebration online in light of the Omicron surge, they are certain that the day’s programming will still pack a powerful peaceful punch in honor of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 37th annual celebration will be streamed live at 9 a.m. on Jan. 17 on www.mlkjrwestside.org and feature music by the Linda Alvarez Trio, spoken word by Get Lit: Words Ignite, a keynote speech by journalist LZ Granderson, and the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement award to 64 year Santa Monica resident and activist LaVerne Ross.

“The fact that Santa Monica is home to the largest MLK Day celebration on the Westside is a testament to the Westside Coalition, but I also hope and believe that it is a reflection of our community’s most cherished values,” said Kristin McCowan, Santa Monica’s first Black City Councilwoman. “Our local work to lift all voices, bring about policies that drive greater equity, and to grow and heal together from painful points of our community’s past continues, and we hope others will get involved.”

The MLK Westside Coalition has a rich history and is both one of the longest running and largest MLK Day events in Los Angeles.

The coalition’s current chair Darlene Evans and member Nat Trives were founders of the first event in 1985 and have continued to help the celebration develop and thrive across four decades. Trives is a former SMPD officer and was the first ever Black Mayor of Santa Monica, while Evans is a longtime community activist, who has served on the Commission on the Status of Women.

They were part of the team that fought to have the Santa Monica Public Library’s auditorium named in honor of Dr. King and the team that then brought his eldest daughter Yolanda King to the MLK Day Celebration in 2006. Their tireless efforts have ensured the event continues every year and have inspired younger members of the community to get involved.

For example, Michele Prince, who helped organize this year’s event, first got involved with the coalition after being deeply moved by Yolanda King’s appearance and has stayed involved for years due to her admiration of fellow coalition members.

“I get to be exposed to the other coalition members who are really impressive and are really walking the walk of doing what’s right and helping keep the values of Dr. King alive, because the work is not done and we have to keep teaching the next generation and pushing ourselves to continue being inspired and motivated,” said Prince.

Prince, Trives and Evans, alongside their fellow coalition members, selected this year’s theme: “the time is always right to do what is right,” which is an MLK quotation, and chose LZ Granderson to be the keynote speaker.

Granderson is a sports and culture columnist with the LA Times and host of the “Life out Loud” podcast about the history of the LGBTQ community. His writings on race, sexuality and equality have earned him honors from the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association and the National Association of Black Journalists.

“2021 was a year of so many difficult situations and real conversations around race and police violence and other issues that were very important to Dr. King, and he (Granderson) has been writing so beautifully… so we’re really, really excited to hear what he has to say,” said Prince.

The coalition also chose to honor LaVerne Ross for her decades of commitment to honoring Black history and bettering the lives of all underrepresented groups in Santa Monica.

Ross is best known for bringing the celebration of Juneteenth to Santa Monica from her home state of Texas.

Her grandfather was a slave in Texas and her parents worked as sharecroppers before moving their family to Santa Monica in 1957. Ross grew up celebrating Juneteenth every year even though very few people in her new home state recognized the day. In 1992, she successfully convinced City Council to establish a Santa Monica Juneteenth celebration, which has now taken place for the past 29 years.

“MLK Day has certainly inspired me to move forward with MLK’s legacy of advocating for the underrepresented and others to be recognized and Juneteenth really speaks to that, so the two days certainly work hand in hand,” said Ross.

Ross also spent many years working for the City, both as an employee of the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) and a volunteer on several commissions.

One of her biggest accomplishments during her time at the PNA was creating a program between tenants and landlords that allowed for the overhaul and renovation of aging buildings that were on the verge of being condemned.

“I was instrumental in helping 856 tenants regain habitable housing in Santa Monica,” said Ross. “The City of Santa Monica thought that was phenomenal because the City had tried a similar program and only 12 landlords and tenants participated in it… and so they felt my talent and professionalism was really impressive.”

Ross also helped establish the first midwifery wing in Providence Saint John’s while serving on the Commission on the Status of Women; and she advocated for affordable housing for seniors, expanded Meals on Wheels coverage and dollar rides for seniors while serving on the Commission for the Senior Community.

At the age of 80, Ross continues to be involved in the community and is currently working on two long-term goals with the City: creating a Juneteenth parade and founding a Juneteenth museum in Santa Monica.

“I’m very, very pleased that I’m still up and running doing everything I can,” said Ross, adding that she is incredibly excited about her upcoming award. “I felt like Cinderella, I could have danced all night and still have asked for more when I was informed that they would present me with the Lifetime Achievement award.”

More information about the MLK Day Celebration can be found at www.mlkjrwestside.org/