By Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor
This year, Fresno will observe the 85th birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., starting on Jan. 17 with a garlanding ceremony at noon at Fresno County Courthouse Park and concluding with a march and commemoration program on Jan. 20. Several activities have been planned by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Committee during the four-day celebration to pay homage to an American hero, world historic figure and prophet of nonviolence for his enduring legacy and contribution to humankind.
Since 1984, the Unity Committee has been a vital and constructive force at the grassroots level in organizing the Dr. King birthday celebrations every year in Fresno. Through the persistent efforts and dedicated leadership of former Fresno City Council Member Les Kimber, the City Council passed Bill 195 and Ordinance 85-187 on Oct. 25, 1983, declaring the third Monday in January as the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Day Holiday and created the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Committee tasked with planning a celebration for the 55th birthday Dr. King the following January.
The Unity Committee held the first celebration on Jan. 15, 1984. Chaired by Carolyn Carter, the Unity Committee represented a broad cross-section of our community and consisted of Kimber, Dr. Su Kapoor, Dan Pessino, City Council Member Karen Humphrey, Rev. Walt Perry, Mary Curry, Woody Miller, Dr. Joseph Sacks, Dr. Thomas Russell, Shirley Rowe, Art Dyson, Rev. Chester Riggins, Ernie Shelton, Dr. James Aldredge, Ben Benavidez, Jackie Church, Ruth Cooper, Lindell Cross, Rutherford “Bud” Gaston, Dr. Robert Mikell, Ray Johnson and various other community members.
The first carefully planned celebration of Dr. King’s birthday was a tremendous success as it generated an enthusiastic response from several thousand Fresnans of all ages, races, religions and classes who participated in the citywide events to honor Dr. King. In the first two years, the celebrations included a march, a community commemoration program and a food drive.
When Dr. King’s birthday became a national holiday in 1986, the Unity Committee themed the celebration “Living the Dream” and expanded its events to include a breakfast (hosted by the Clovis Police Department since 2006), an all-faith and music service, and a candlelight vigil.
In 1987, the Unity Committee added a speech arts and essay contest for students in the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD). Now the contest includes students throughout Fresno County with active help and cooperation from the Fresno County Office of Education. K-12 curriculum on the life of Dr. King was also introduced by the FUSD. Youth participation added more vigor to the celebration, which is becoming more vibrant each year.
The Unity Committee added a garlanding ceremony at Dr. King’s bust to the program when the sculpture was installed in Fresno Courthouse Park in 1988. An awards and community reception was later added to round out the current programming.
The Unity Committee is a multicultural group consisting of eight subcommittees. It is an all-volunteer effort that is tasked to fund-raise for and organize a community-wide celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy. The Unity Committee is proud of the now 30 years of service it has provided to the community.
For more information on the committee and how you can volunteer or provide financial support, call 559-621-7834. The public is invited to all the events.
Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor is a professor emeritus of Fresno State and has been a founding member of the Unity Committee since it was established in 1983.