Celebrations around the United States Monday are recalling the contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the holiday named in the civil rights leader's honor. In Los Angeles, thousands will attend the annual King Day parade. Another event, called the 100,000 Man March, will target young African Americans who live in inner city neighborhoods plagued by violence and crime.
The march and celebration near the Los Angeles Coliseum will address what Daude Sherrills calls an "epidemic of violence" in the inner city. The march organizer says hundreds of youngsters die every year on the streets of Los Angeles, the victims of gang violence.
"This 100,000 Man March is really to bring together politicians, celebrities, grass-roots activists, those from corporations, to really get involved with the process, to stem the tide of violence in the inner-city communities of Los Angeles," he explained. "And, hopefully, to take this, not just here in Los Angeles, but to utilize Los Angeles as a model for Chicago, for New York, and all these other major metropolitan areas that are dealing with the same phenomena that we are dealing with here in Los Angeles."
Mr. Sherrills helped organize a celebrated truce between two Los Angeles gangs, called the Bloods and the Crips, in the early 1990s. The city's murder rate dropped dramatically, but started to climb again by the end of the decade.
He blames the culture of the streets, which has found its way into popular music. He says some rap musicians celebrate gangs and drugs, and perpetuate the violence.
"Murder is no accident. This is a learned behavior," he said. "So, our kids who are suffering from low self-esteem coming out of these ghettoes looking for hope, seeing happiness and liberty in those who are promoting violence. So, our goal with the 100,000 Man March is really to agitate, and bring politicians, celebrities, grassroots people, youth, families, whites, blacks, Jews, together, in unity."
The actor Lou Gossett, Jr., will join the march. He won an Academy Award as best supporting actor in 1982 for his role as a drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman.
He says black youngsters need role models. When he was growing up, his heroes were movie cowboys and adventure stars, and most were white.
"None of them looked like me. But for some reason, I got over that non-inclusion, and I became the second black to win an Oscar, the first black to be the president of my school, etc.," he said. "But for the average African American child, they opt for a subculture, because they don't think they belong to a major culture. So, the subculture is getting quite powerful now. But still, we need to be one nation, under God, with the magic word, indivisible."
The actor hopes to inspire black youngsters by getting stories of African American heroes on the screen, like the true story of the 761st all-black tank battalion that served under General George S. Patton during World War II, or the tale of a little-known Western lawman.
"The most successful marshal, for example, was not Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson, but a man by the name of Bass Reeves," he noted. "The movie should have been done a long time ago. Everybody's hungry for those stories. And it's time to do that. And that's why I'm here, trying to pursue that area, the entertainment area, of the truth on the screen."
Organizers say that this first year of the event, they are not likely to get anywhere near 100,000 people. They say they would be happy with 10,000. They say that even a small event will send an inspirational message.
Another man behind the march, Los Angeles resident Don Banks, says that's what he is doing. He's the proud father of two successful children.
"My daughter is Tyra Banks, model, actress, businesswoman," he explained. "In addition, I have a son. He's a first lieutenant, U.S. Air Force, stationed at the Pentagon."
Through his daughter's educational foundation, Mr. Banks is helping girls with a message of empowerment. He recalls that a visit from an Olympic athlete, gold medallist Rafer Johnson, inspired him when he was a youngster.
"I can remember years ago, when a light that I saw was a person that attended my junior high school, Rafer Johnson. I may not remember all that he said, but I remember one thing. He was there for us, and what I'm trying to do is be there for our kids and their kids, that we believe and trust they will inherit all that should be theirs," he said.
Lou Gossett Jr. says Martin Luther King offered a message of hope, and that black youngsters should raise their sights beyond the lure of the streets to become lawyers, senators and even presidents. He says that, like the civil rights leader, they can make a difference.