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Las Vegans reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy

Wendell P. Williams was in high school when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Today, like many Americans then and now, he continues to find inspiration in King’s legacy.

For the past 38 years, Williams has been furthering that legacy as founder and president of Las Vegas’ Martin Luther King Jr. parade and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week events.

This year’s slate of events began Friday with a technology summit and continues Sunday with a multi-ethnic service at Victory Missionary Baptist Church, 500 W. Monroe Ave.

At 10 a.m. Monday, the 38th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade will step off in downtown Las Vegas.

Then, the commemoration includes a Thursday interfaith service, the annual Young Dreamers Awards program on Jan. 24, the 38th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship banquet Jan. 25, and a breakfast and parade awards gathering on Feb. 1.

Williams said the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee of Las Vegas was formed in 1981 and the first parade here was in January 1982. It was, Williams jokes, “one of the most pitiful-looking parades you’d ever see. But it did initiate (a) movement.”

That first parade included 13 units, Williams said, and now, with more than 100, “we’re one of the largest in the nation.”

“The first parade was held in West Las Vegas and we had one school participate,” he said. The parade moved to Fremont Street the following year, “and we were on Fremont Street until the Fremont Street Experience came along.”

Subsequent moves took the parade to Las Vegas Boulevard and then to Fourth Street, its current route.

Williams called the Las Vegas parade “probably the most diverse event that takes place in Las Vegas.” But just as important are the celebration’s other events, most notably its scholarship program and Young Dreamers Awards program.

“Because the parade draws so much attention, (people) don’t realize all the other things we do to promote his legacy,” Williams said. “These things are just as important as anything else.”

The parade, the scholarship presentation and other events that bookend it serve as fitting tributes to King’s life and work. And even as King is celebrated, those who followed his work likely will bring memories of their own to this annual celebration.

“I was in my senior year when he got murdered,” said Williams, who lived in rural Louisiana then and witnessed racial discrimination on a daily basis. “I remember my mother used to work at the polls on Election Day and couldn’t go in and vote.”

To Williams, King “meant everything, because the conditions I grew up in were so segregated and unfair that anyone who would come along that would talk about (bettering) people’s lives, I was paying attention.

“Someone like Dr. King coming along, now maybe there’s a possibility that life could be better for everyone.”

King also “talked about world peace,” Williams said. “I think that’s what impressed me more with him. I tell people that he was more than a civil rights leader. He was a world leader.”

Las Vegas filmmaker Stan Armstrong has produced several documentaries with local themes, including one about the late-’60s/early ’70s Rancho High School riots. He’s a 1972 Rancho graduate and, like most other young people of the era, followed King mostly through TV and newspaper coverage.

In the days after King’s murder on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, “my mother kept us home from school,” he said. “We didn’t understand what was going on, but she took it to heart and kept us home from school the rest of the week.

“My mom said, ‘You guys aren’t going to school,’ and I wanted to go to school so bad because I was trying out for the baseball team.”

Armstrong and his family moved to Las Vegas from San Francisco when Armstrong was 2. At the time, Las Vegas already was home to an increasingly active civil rights movement with leaders of its own. For Armstrong, the civil rights movement both here and nationally was a regular topic of household conversation.

“My mom and dad were very astute about civil rights and about political issues,” he said, and “were stuck to the TV all the time” watching network news shows.

While Dina Neal didn’t grow up during King’s era, learning about King and his work was easy: She’s the daughter of former longtime state senator and civic activist Joe Neal.

“We had to read (about current events) and we were explicitly told about civil rights and how we shared respect for what was happening,” said Neal, who is a Nevada state assemblywoman.

“I think my dad probably helped make (the civil rights struggle) a reality because in his town he didn’t have the right to vote in Louisiana. He actually was trying to get people registered to vote in his small town in Louisiana. So that kind of made it relevant.”

Neal said King and his work became even more vivid to her through “Eyes on the Prize,” a documentary series about the U.S. civil rights movement that aired on PBS in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“That was a really powerful documentary,” she said. “It brings emotion and tears to your eyes. You saw footage of Birmingham (Alabama) and what was going on with marches.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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