For many, the 68th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth commemorated on Monday was a time for celebration and reflection. Others decried an America they believe has regressed in terms of race relations and its treatment of the poor.
Archie Archuleta with the Hispanic advocacy organization La Raza, joined a group of about 20 protesters in front of Central City Community Center who said they believe King's dream of racial and social harmony has not been realized, nor will it ever be as long as America remains a society divided by class and money."We must have both economic opportunity as well as freedom," Archuleta said. "Without both, we will always have racism."
Other events held in relation to King's birthday and the federal Human Rights Day holiday included a luncheon sponsored by the Salt Lake NAACP, services at the state Capitol, and a "Walk of Life" candlelight processional at Brigham Young University.
At Monday's protest, demonstrators carrying signs criticizing President Clinton's signing of welfare reform legislation and recent local and national initiatives to restrict immigration, described a negative mood in the country toward immigrants, minority groups and the poor.
Despite calls for budgetary restraint at the state and federal level, Ali Wilson with the JEDI Women organization said she believes there is enough money to fund food stamp, welfare and other programs to help disadvantaged minorities and whites.
Wilson said the Salt Lake area is a prime example of current national disparities between the rich and poor. Jobs are abundant here, but many positions pay only minimum wage or slightly better, meaning a new class of working poor has been created. Many of those toiling in such low-pay, service-sector jobs have no health insurance and spend as much as 50 percent of their wages just to pay for shelter in the area's notoriously expensive rental market.
In other activities honoring King on Monday, about 500 people gathered at the downtown Little America Hotel for a luncheon sponsored by the Salt Lake Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Keynote speaker Carl E. Douglas, managing attorney for the law offices of Johnnie L. Cochran, the firm that defended O.J. Simpson in his criminal trial, described a vision of America's future that both affirmed that problems still exist in racial relations but held out a ray of hope for the future.
Quoting from one of King's speeches, Douglas reminded his audience that "the arc of a moral universe is long, but it always bends towards justice."
"I truly believe that those things that bind us as a nation are far stronger than those that divide us," he said, drawing applause from the predominantly black audience.
This year's recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, presented at the luncheon, was Wilfred D. Samuels, associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Utah, whose involvement in the community includes different tutoring programs and speaking to youth groups.
Florence Lawrence, a descendant of early pioneers who immigrated to the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young, was honored with this year's Rosa Parks Award for her efforts to speak out on issues that promote equality.
Among dignitaries in attendance at the luncheon, Gov. Mike Leavitt read a proclamation declaring King's birthday as a day of remembrance and tribute.
Meanwhile at the state Capitol, the state's celebration and recognition of Human Rights Day began early Monday as the Legislature started its 45-day session with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and remarks from Sandra Adams, executive director of the Martin Luther King Human Rights Commission.
Following the presentation, Sen. President Lane Beattie addressed recent criticism of the Legislature for meeting on King's birthday, celebrated in Utah as Human Rights Day, a holiday on which state and federal employees across the nation have the day off.
"I heard some criticism to this body for meeting today, but I can't think of a better way to draw attention to this man," said Beattie, who added that King's "I Have a Dream" speech transcends all generations and lifestyles.
"It's appropriate that we start the Legislative session with this important message," he said.
Deseret News staff writer Lucinda Dillon contributed to this report.