St. Paul, Minn. — A crowd of around 1,000 people marched from St. Paul's Central High School to an auditorium at nearby Concordia University. Some marchers held homemade peace placards and signs from the campaign of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.
Tony Quevedo, of the United Autoworker's Civil Rights Campaign, held one end of a UAW banner, but his thoughts were on Wellstone.
"I still can't believe Wellstone's not with us," he said. "I've been pretty much in shock ever since. He's always been here."
Inside the auditorium, Gov. Tim Pawlenty called on members of the crowd to honor Dr. King's legacy by standing up for what they believe.
"He said the measure of a person is not where they stand in times of comfort or privilege, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy," Pawlenty said. "One of the things at a mimimum we can do is not sit still in the face of this challenge, we cannot be indifferent."
Several speakers cited long-running problems such as the low graduation rate among children of color in the St. Paul and Minneapolis school systems. Others called on the audience to do volonteer work such as mentoring young people. Some 500 people at the march signed up to do volonteer work as part of the celebration.
During his speech, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minnesota, appeared to distance himself from the Bush administration's opposition to affirmative action.
"My friends, we need to continue to reach out, and I will say we need to reach out affirmatively, to understand that this a not a level playing field for all," Coleman told the crowd.
Speaking to a reporter afterward, he said he does not necessarily agree with the Bush administration's recently announced opposition to the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies.
Keynote speaker Dr. Mary Frances Berry, chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, blasted the Bush adminsitration's stand on the issue. She also dennounced the administration's move toward war with Iraq. She noted that Dr. King was among the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War.
"He believed in peace; he was a man who believed in non- violence and it got him in trouble," she said. "Don't you ever forget that in the last days, the last two years of Martin's life, he was criticized and rebuked and scorned everywhere he went. They had a White House conference on civil rights in 1966 and he was told he couldn't come. He was rebuked by other civil rights leaders. That famous exchange when one of them met him in the airport and said, 'how dare you talk about peace in the world and criticize the administration. You're going to make them mad at us in the civil rights movement.' And what did he say? (He said) 'I will not segregate my moral concerns. I am concerned about people all over the world.'"
Berry also criticized the Bush administration on the issue of civil liberties. She said the county's best interests are not served when people are afraid to speak out for fear of surveillance.
"If Martin were here, he'd be in big trouble today," she said.