As a young person in 1963, E. onja Brown got on a bus at W. 138th in Harlem bound for Washington, D.C., alone.
Once there, she pushed her way up into the crowd assembled before the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
“People would let me go past them, because I looked like a kid,” Brown Lawson says. She made her way to the edge of the platform where Dr. King would give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She was so close, in fact, that as she heard his words she reached up and held the hem of his coat.
“I had never heard anyone that close to me speak like that,” Brown Lawson says. And when she, as a young black woman, was initially denied entry to the college of her choice because of the color of her skin, it was Dr. King’s voice that “carried” her “through the racism” she faced.
Today, Ms. Brown Lawson is the President of Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee of Santa Barbara, a purely volunteer-run organization dedicated to fostering “positive relationships between the many diverse groups in the Santa Barbara Community and the surrounding areas; to sponsor programs and events which exemplify the teachings of Dr. King; and to observe and celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.”
The committee’s primary charge is producing four days of events across Isla Vista, Goleta, Santa Barbara, and the Santa Ynez Valley to celebrate the King holiday in January every year, since 2007. This year’s series of events included a kickoff at the eternal flame at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to celebrate Dr. King; the annual Unity March; and a culminating speech by civil rights icon and King contemporary Dr. James Lawson.
Throughout the year, the committee works to ensure that Dr. King’s words and actions are known and contemplated by people across the community, particularly the young. For that reason, the MLK committee organizes an annual poetry and essay writing contest where elementary and high school students win cash prizes for poems and essays centered on a theme for the year, along with Dr. King’s life and teachings.
Ms. Brown Lawson laments that the achievements of the Civil Rights era did not alleviate racism, but sees incredible hope in the young people the committee tries to connect to Dr. King’s legacy every day of the year.
“Listening to his words that day gave me the courage and strength to persevere despite many obstacles,” Brown Lawson says. “And that is what I believe Dr. King can do for young people today… his voice, his passion, and his resolve is the essence of the kind of person he was and what he stood for. My hope is that the younger generation can understand how he is still relevant today.”