On Jan. 15, the City of Fresno will celebrate the 95th birth anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an uncompromising champion of nonviolence, human rights and social justice. Since 1984, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Committee of the City of Fresno has been organizing four days of celebration in Fresno paying tributes to Dr. King for his magnetic leadership and majestic contribution to civil and human rights, social justice and nonviolence.
We celebrate the life and legacy each year of a man who brought the message of peace, love, unity, hope and healing. We also commemorate the timeless values that Dr. King shared with us through his life examples—the values of truth, justice, compassion, courage, dignity, humility and community service.
The Unity Committee was established in 1983 through the persistent efforts and dedicated leadership of the late Fresno City Council Member Les Kimber, whose daughter, Terri Edwards, now serves on the committee. The Fresno City Council passed Bill 195 and Ordinance 85-187 on Oct. 25, 1983, declaring the third Monday in January, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as a holiday and created the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Committee tasked with planning a celebration for the 55th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in January 1984.
The Unity Committee held the first celebration on Jan. 15, 1984. Chaired by the late Carolyn Carter, the Unity Committee represented a broad cross-section of our community and included Kimber, the author, Dan Pessano, 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 S. Mikell, Ray Johnson and various other community members.
The first celebration in January 1984 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. During the first two years, the celebrations included a march, a community commemoration program at Saroyan Theatre 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 the 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). The contest now 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 of Dr. King was installed in Fresno Courthouse Park in 1988. An awards and community reception event was later added to the current program.
The Unity Committee is a multicultural group consisting of eight subcommittees. It is an all-volunteer effort that is tasked to fundraise for and organize a community-wide celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy. The Unity Committee is proud of its 40 years of service it has provided to the community of Fresno.
The Committee spends countless hours each year planning the events spread over four days starting with the garlanding ceremony on the Friday before Dr. King’s official birthday on the third Monday of January. The garlanding ceremony is joined by community and civic leaders including several hundred school children from the FUSD.
See our January Peace and Social Justice Calendar for all MLK-related activities this year.