High school students lead Salem reflection on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

High school students march to the Oregon Capitol to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

With Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s face projected on a screen behind her, Leanette Mabinton whipped her braids across her face and raised her arms in dancing praise.

The McKay High School sophomore closed out an energetic celebration of King’s legacy at North Salem High School with a dance to modern gospel hit “Break Every Chain.” Audience members murmured “Yes!” as the teen circled the stage.

Mabinton joined students and community leaders from across Salem and Keizer who spoke, sang, prayed and danced before an audience of several hundred gathered to honor the civil rights leader and reflect on his legacy.

With an atmosphere somewhere between a school assembly and black church service, high school students took center stage, speaking about the relevance of King’s legacy before a crowd that interjected with shouts of agreement and encouragement.

Students said their generation is energized to challenge racial disparities in the criminal justice system, educate their peers on black history and continue to push for racial equality.

“My prayer is that we accept the challenge and follow in the footsteps of those who came before us and blaze a path for those who will come behind us,” said Jordan Young, a sophomore at Sprague High School. “This is the legacy of the American black community: perseverance and dedication to a better future.”

Salem-Keizer NAACP President Benny Williams, left, bows his head as Pastor Ronnie Brooks leads a prayer on the Oregon Capitol steps. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

North Salem senior Ester Angulo Palazzo delivered a soulful rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come,” the 1964 classic inspired by singer Sam Cooke’s experience being turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana.

In a speech, senior Desire Rukundo said he sees progress in the diversity of his classmates at North, and their willingness to make fun of racist stereotypes and learn from each other.

“Of the towns and cities in Oregon, we have one of the most diverse and welcoming,” he said.

His classmate Alexia Walton said higher arrest and incarceration rates for black people, and the impact those disparities have on families, show King’s dream remains to be fulfilled.

“Fifty-five years later we are haunted by the hashtags of those who were shot and killed by the people here to protect us,” she said.

The celebration is the fifth organized by the Salem-Keizer NAACP and Salem’s Coalition of Churches, NAACP president Benny Williams said.

Williams said organizers this year chose to focus on students as a symbolic passing of the torch from older generations. He said the midterm elections made it clear young people are becoming more engaged and involved in politics across the country.

“Across all of our communities, people are engaged,” he said.

Following the gathering at North Salem, a diverse group marched from the high school to the Capitol, where pastors and community leaders prayed and spoke about Dr. King’s legacy and the work remaining to be done.

In a keynote address, Reginald Richardson called King a “drum major for justice” and spoke about his commitment to ending poverty and wealth inequality between black and white people.

“Dr. King called on America to keep the promises outlines in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “In the half century since Dr. King’s speech, we have seen some progress. But have we seen the dream that King had hoped for? I would have to report that the dream continues to be unrealized.”

He called on people to remain engaged in struggling for King’s dream of economic and social justice, saying voting rights and disenfranchisement remain significant problems facing black Americans.

“The light of righteousness shall illuminate darkness, and love will always defeat hate,” he said.

On the capitol steps, the crowd sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a traditional gospel song. Pastor Ronnie Brooks invited the group to continue the celebration at Seed of Faith.

“Dr. King stood for good preaching and good gospel music,” Brooks said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or [email protected]

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.