Public employees, labor and faith leaders and youth gathered Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with speeches, reflections and a call to action.
The event, held at the Oregon Convention Center, was put together by Metro, Oregon AFSCME and the Church of God in Christ.
In 1968, King went to Memphis to support a strike by AFSCME sanitation workers. He went back to Atlanta but returned April 3, determined to show that nonviolent protest still worked. That night, he delivered his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech in Memphis' Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. He was assassinated the next day while standing on his motel balcony.
"I believe that Dr. King, that night in Memphis, Tennessee, passed the baton as one does in a relay race, challenging us all with a call to action," said Bishop Archie Hopkins Jr., pastor of New Direction Community Church in Northeast Portland. "As we look daily at the racial and economic injustice taking place in our communities and in our nation, it should give us all who remain a renewed energy to fight for those who have been silenced by inequality and an unjust system."
E.D. Mondainé, president of Portland's NAACP chapter, delivered the opening invocation, leading a rendition of "Somebody's hurting my brother and it's gone on much too long and I won't be silent anymore."
Antoinette Edwards, director of the Portland Office of Youth Violence Prevention, encouraged the audience to be like the good Samaritan, who stopped to help a man who had been beaten and robbed when others ignored him and continued on their way.
"That's the question that men and women of free will, as people of faith or not, as public employees, as labor folk or just as human beings, that we must ask today and everyday hereafter: What will happen to my sister or brother if I do nothing?" she said.
The event came as Metro is looking at whether to address greater Portland’s affordable housing crisis through a regional ballot measure this November.
Metro chief operating officer Martha Bennett said the agency's work to advance racial equity in greater Portland is inspired in large part by King's legacy.
"We need to serve all of the people of our region and it's clear from our past that we have systematically left certain people behind," she said. "As our region's communities of color grow … we have to work to take down the barriers that help people of color from succeeding. This is our mission."
Karis Stoudamire-Phillips, who serves as corporate and social responsibility manager at Moda Health and chair of the Metropolitan Exposition and Recreation Commission, said she carries King's words and works with her wherever she goes.
"Dr. King started and left a legacy showing us how, when and where to stand up, speak out and effect positive change," she said. "Let's all continue to find our voice and use it whether in a large auditorium like today or an 8-year-old in a classroom. Use it."
The voices of the event's youngest participants were greeted with loud applause and standing ovations as they recited original poems, shared personal reflections about King and sang songs.
The students were Wendy Green and Elijah Crawford from Self Enhancement, Inc.; Hakim Johnson and LaDrena Robinson from De La Salle North Catholic High School; and pre-K and elementary-school-aged kids from Multitudes of Mercy Secondary Homeschool.
Former Metro Councilor Ed Washington concluded the event, sharing his experience about growing up in Portland amid racial and housing discrimination and saying that while the fight for equality has come a long way, difficult days remain ahead.
"We've got a lot of work ahead of us and if you think everything is OK now, you better go home and pray," he said. "But what you are doing and the commitments that you have made, the fact that you are here, I wouldn't have seen this kind of gathering in 1950. So let's keep it up because there's so much work to do."
Sponsors of the event included NAACP, Portland Jobs with Justice and IBEW Local 48.
Later in the day, a moment of silence was held and a bell was tolled 39 times for each year of King’s life.