Fresno honors Martin Luther King Jr. with march in support of federal voter protections

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Hundreds of Fresno residents, community leaders, and elected officials marched through downtown Fresno on Monday to honor the legacy of late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The march, organized by the City of Fresno Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Unity Committee, was the 38th annual celebration of the late civil rights leader and the first march held since January 2020, just before the pandemic caused many large gatherings and in-person events to be canceled or postponed.

This year, King’s family asked that no celebration of his life occur without action on the pending voting rights legislation, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.

“I think the greatest way to honor Dr. King is to not only say his quotes and to say the things he did, but actually fight for the things that would he have been fighting before,“ said Edward Thomas, pastor at Living Word International Church in Fresno, who came to the march in support of voter rights.

Thomas was one of many attendees who in support of the federal legislation to strengthen voter rights and protections.

In a similar vein, earlier this month, dozens of Fresnans spoke in favor of the legislation at the Jan. 6 vigil for democracy in front of Fresno city hall.

Fresno Unified board member Keshia Thomas, center, raises her hand during prayer as she joins other dignitaries before the start of the annual MLK march Monday morning, Jan. 17, 2022 in downtown Fresno.
Fresno Unified board member Keshia Thomas, center, raises her hand during prayer as she joins other dignitaries before the start of the annual MLK march Monday morning, Jan. 17, 2022 in downtown Fresno.

Marchers, speakers vocalize support of voter legislation

Speakers that voiced support of the voting rights legislation included Congressman Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who recently voted in favor of the legislation.

“We are at a critical time in this country,” said Costa. “We are trying to maintain all that was gained by the civil rights movement in the 1960s.”

The voting rights legislation, which faces strong Republican opposition and has been blocked by a Republican filibuster, is not likely to pass. Last week, President Joe Biden called for eliminating the filibuster to debate and vote on election and voting rights legislation during a speech in Atlanta.

Fresno Unified School District Trustee Keshia Thomas also addressed the federal legislation, saying that “voting rights legislation is one of the most important issues now and has been forever.”

She added that “the Jim Crow relic, the filibuster, is being protected at all costs. And we all know that Jim Crow was used to block anti-slavery legislation and civil rights legislation, and we cannot protect that filibuster and blocked voting rights.”

A recent analysis by the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, found that between Jan. 1 and Dec. 7 of 2021, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting. Additionally, they found that more than 440 bills with provisions restricting voting access have been introduced in 49 states during the 2021 legislative sessions.

“I know we don’t see it (voter suppression legislation) as much in California, but their problem over in the South, and in other places, is our problem, too,” said Thomas, the pastor.

An estimated 300 people gather at St. John’s Cathedral for the start of the annual MLK march to the Fresno Memorial Auditorium Monday morning, Jan. 17, 2022 in downtown Fresno.
An estimated 300 people gather at St. John’s Cathedral for the start of the annual MLK march to the Fresno Memorial Auditorium Monday morning, Jan. 17, 2022 in downtown Fresno.

A call for more civic engagement

During Monday morning’s comments outside City Hall, Fresno City Council member Nelson Esparza called on attendees to “walk into your own respective power” and get more involved in civic life.

He encouraged attendees to join their local PTA meetings, run for school board, attend council meetings, or engage with their neighbors in a conversation on voting.

In a recent survey of Fresno city voters conducted by UC Merced, over half of respondents stated they would attend a neighborhood gathering to discuss homelessness, youth involvement in the community, public school quality, and access to health care/medical attention.

“Take a stand and find wherever you can make a difference,” said Esparza.

Olivia Bradley, a recent transplant to Fresno from Chattanooga, Tenn., went to the march to do just that. Bradley and her family came out to the march to see how Fresno celebrated the civil rights leader and learn how to get more involved in the community.

“It’s been a rough last couple of years, I think for everybody. And being home, I think it’s given people more perspective about the injustices that we still live with and deal with on a day-to-day,” said Bradley in reference to the killing of George Floyd.

“It just makes all the more reason to actually be involved,” said Bradley, adding that ever since her son reached school-age, she’s realized that she wants to know more about her elected officials and the decisions they make on how communities are developed.

She said that MLK Day is a chance to pause and acknowledge the progress that has been made. “We have to put it into perspective on a daily basis,” said Bradley. “There are good things we should be celebrating.”

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