July 21, 2024

Living ‘the dream’: Ashland honors MLK’s life, civil rights work

D.L. Richardson gave the keynote address at Ashland’s 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Historic Armory. Richardson has been part of the planning committee for the event since 2003. photo by Bob Palermini
January 17, 2024

Standing-room-only crowd packed Historic Ashland Armory for first time since 2020

By Holly Dillemuth,

Talent Middle School sixth-graders Jordyn Grijalva, Samaya Rodriguez and Rosemary Smith held their signs high, listening intently as the recorded words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech rang through the Plaza and echoed through downtown Ashland on Monday.

The signs held up by the 11-year-old girls read, “Honor King, End Racism” and “With Grace We Stand.” The students carried them as they made their way from the Historic Ashland Armory to the Ashland Plaza following the roughly two-and-a-half-hour “We Chose Love” celebration. While walking the couple blocks to the Plaza, they spoke with about the effect racism still has today in middle school.

James Brown sings the Black National Anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) at the start of Ashland’s 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. photo by Bob Palermini

“I wanted to go because I want to end racism,” Smith told while walking along.

“I want everyone to be equal because there’s beauty in everyone.”

The enthusiastic trio were among more than 500 people in a standing-room-only crowd filling the Historic Ashland Armory for the first year with a full indoor program since 2020. Due to COVID-19, the program was scaled back to a short program in the Plaza in 2021-23.

D.L. Richardson welcomed a large crowd back to Ashland’s Historic Armory for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. This year was the first big celebration after a three-year absence due to the pandemic. photo by Bob Palermini
MLK Jr. Day program

Attendees watched a video about the importance of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the need for it as they walked into the program.

“Sixty years ago, (King) spoke the words we use in our theme,” longtime emcee D.L. Richardson said. This year’s gathering’s them was “We choose love.”

“And you’ve got to remember what was going on 60 years ago,” added Richardson, who also served as this year’s keynote speaker. 

“We just kept coming back to this mindset of everything that’s been going on, of everything that’s been going wrong, how much we still need to choose love,” Richardson said. “How much we need to have that in our lives, how much we need to have that in our heart. And Dr. King spoke to us and said, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’ If you get out (of) the way, you can hear the message. And that’s what we decided to do is get out (of) the way and say ‘we choose love.’”

The combined choir from Ashland’s middle schools performed a song as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Historic Armory. photo by Bob Palermini

Richardson recalled “what (King) had to do to choose love.” 

King’s home in Montgomery, Alabama, was bombed on Jan. 30, 1956, while he, his wife Coretta Scott King, and their young daughter were inside. The incident destroyed his front porch. King had a weighty decision to make that could’ve strayed from a non-violent movement.

“Instead, he spoke peace,” Richardson said. “Instead, he spoke love. Instead he spoke togetherness.”

Richardson also shared how King didn’t set out to be a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but then there came what Richardson described as a “kitchen epiphany.”

The “kitchen epiphany” made King realize that there were greater things that he was meant to do, because he was called to do it, Richardson said. 

BASE youth performed an energetic dance as part of Monday’s program to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. photo by Bob Palermini

It reminded Richardson of something his grandmother said to him.

“What my grandmother used to say is, that if you want to make God laugh, you want to make him smile, tell him what your plans are and what you’re going to do,” Richardson said. “There’s no better way to make God smile than tell him what you gonna do. That’s out of your control. Understand that you have a mission, every one of us. You may not know it yet.”

Richardson said he planned to stay in Southern Oregon only two years when he arrived in 2001.

“Somehow, 20-plus years later, I’m still standing before you and I’d have it no other way,” Richardson said.

Members of the Bellview Bobcat Choir sang at Monday’s MLK Day celebration. photo by Bob Palermini

Richardson also detailed the life and work of Mrs. Rosa Parks, most well known for being arrested after refusing to follow a bus driver’s orders to go to the back of the bus.  

“You guys have to understand, that (when) we talk about (Black) people walking to get on the bus, and then being told they had to go to the back of the bus when a white person came on, 

it wasn’t just that they had to move back, they literally had to get off the bus, go around to the back door, and get in from that way.

Ashland’s Peace Choir performed at Ashland’s 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Historic Armory. photo by Bob Palermini

“I want to be sure that’s very clear,” he added.

Richardson noted that at one point, the bus driver — ironically, from the city of Equality, Alabama — decided Parks had to move.

“Mrs. Parks had heard about the murder of Emmett Till and heard about all the other things that had been so wrong, so unfair, unjust and finally decided that this day was not the day that she was going to get up — Dec. 5, 1955, she would not get up out of her seat.

“And that is when the true Civil Rights Movement took place and started,” he added, which was greeted by applause.

SOU President Rick Bailey and other program participants watch a video presentation from BASE (Black Alliance & Social Empowerment), a nonprofit community organization that works towards the well-being and advancement of Black residents living in Southern Oregon. photo by Bob Palermini

“I think we do a disservice to Rosa Parks,” he continued. “It’s so hard to not remember the work that she did before we ever knew her name.”

He shared how she encouraged Black youth and mentored them in her home.

Richardson turned his attention to all of the youth who performed on Monday, and those in attendance.

“You will bring about a change, you will bring about a difference,” he said. “You will make a difference so that we don’t have to deal with this anymore.”

A long line of people waited for the doors to open for Ashland’s 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Historic Armory on Monday. photo by Bob Palermini

The program was full of lively performances by local school groups, including a Helman Elementary School dance group, BASE (Black Alliance for Social Empowerment) Youth Dance, poetry by Ashland Middle School Black Student Union, Ashland School District Middle School, Rogue Valley Peace Choir, and Friends of Bishop Mayfield. Richardson honored the memory of the late Bishop Mayfield, who had long been a key part of the MLK Jr. Day program.

Richardson announced this year was his last as emcee for the event after approximately 20 years in that role. 

The T-shirt stand was busy before the start of Ashland’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. photo by Bob Palermini

Richardson, who hails from Selma, Alabama, attended his first MLK celebration in 2003.

He shared how the following year in 2004, Richardson was practicing his speech with a colleague’s infant son sleeping nearby in the room.

SOU President Rick Bailey talked about the uphill climb to the mountain top envisioned by Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1968 speech just prior to his assassination. photo by Bob Palermini

Richardson sang “Hold my hand, precious Lord” to the crowd, reflecting fondly on the memory of doing the same with his colleague’s newborn son in the room, ensuring to his colleague that Richardson’s words as emcee would be well-received. It appears they have been for two decades.

“I want to thank you for putting up with me, I want to thank you for putting up with my jokes,” Richardson said. 

Jenna Molay opened the program with a welcome and introduced the emcee and featured speaker for the event, D.L. Richardson. photo by Bob Palermini

Richardson said he’s not going anywhere, but is stepping away from his role as emcee.

Attendees also heard from representatives of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith traditions.

Speakers included Rabbi David Zaslow of Havurah Shir Hadash and Rabbi Julie Benioff of Temple Emek Shalom, Pastor Dan Fowler of First Presbyterian Church of Ashland, and Mary Foster, president of Tawheed Peace Center in Talent, and Abdiaziz Guled, student advocate and coach at Ashland Middle School as well as varsity soccer coach at Ashland High School.

Students with the Helman School Multicultural Group performed a dance number as part of Ashland’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Historic Armory. photo by Bob Palermini

Southern Oregon University also helped organize the event. 

“No disrespect to any president in the past, but I don’t ever remember seeing the president of SOU come and help with (setting up) our chairs,” Richardson said when introducing current SOU President Rick Bailey.

Bailey shared words about the vision that King spoke of during his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee, before he was assassinated.

Two members of the Ashland Middle School Black Student Union recite poems they wrote taking inspiration from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. photo by Bob Palermini

“On that same trip, in really the last few moments of his life, he also talked on that same trip with reverence about the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, and as a student, it was interesting to me because he spoke with reverence about that, and the framers, and yet those two documents at the time they were written, did not secure the blessings of liberties for people of color,” Bailey said. “And yet he spoke with such grace and eloquence and to me it shows the genius of Dr. King. He understood that this experiment in American Democracy was a work in progress and I mean that literally — a work in progress.”

Bishop Mayfield, a well-known local musician who regularly performed for MLK celebrations in prior years, passed away in 2023. Some of his musical friends performed to honor his passing and to celebrate the day. photo by Bob Palermini

“So it means that we can celebrate July Fourth and we can celebrate Juneteenth,” he added. “And generations later, we can celebrate Dr. King’s birthday. We can do all of those things and we should do all of those things, and at the same time, acknowledge there is still so much work left to do. 

BASE youth performed an energetic dance as part of Monday’s program to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. photo by Bob Palermini

“All too often, we hear voices that are motivated by hate and prejudice and bigotry and intolerance, and often times those voices are trying to divide us … based on the color of our skin, or our gender, or how we identify ourselves, or what we believe or where we come from or even who we love. And it’s in those moments that we tend to think that we’re going backwards on the journey and we can get frustrated … and in that moment, we are, but it’s also in those moments where we can come back to the words of Dr. King.”

Bailey cited his favorite quote by King: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” he said. “This journey to the mountain top is painfully slow … but it is a walk forward.

“The other is a call to action because that arc does not bend toward justice on its own,” Bailey said. “It bends because good people put their shoulders into it and move it forward.”

A crowd of about 75 gathered on the Ashland Plaza after the event at the armory to listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., In August 1963. photo by Bob Palermini
Still work to do

Following the program at the armory, about 75 participants walked to the Plaza, where they listened to the approximately 17-minute “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered by King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963.

As the Talent Middle School (TMS) students headed toward the Plaza, they shared the current state of things from their points of view in regards to racial injustice.

“It really sucks because some people at my school call people Black ‘monkeys,’” Rodriguez said.

Another student said they hear the N-word said at school, too.

Talent Middle School students Jordyn Grijalva, Samaya Rodriguez and Rosemary Smith, all 11 and in the sixth grade, proudly hold up signs up before a walk to the Ashland Plaza from the Historic Ashland Armory on Monday afternoon. photo by Holly Dillemuth

“I just can’t believe it’s still happening,” Smith said, as the three approached the Plaza. “Like, I thought we ended this years ago.”

The girls hold their signs up high as they walk to the Plaza, with Stacy Hoffman in tow. Hoffman exudes enthusiasm as she walks along with the girls. She is a volunteer at TMS and comes to the school every month to empower the girls and to share with them about Black culture.

“I come in and just … give them more insight on Black culture, African-American culture,” Hoffman said, “so they’re more familiar … I just come in with whatever I have, with my experiences when I was young.”

From left, Jordyn Grijalva, Stacy Hoffman, Rosemary Smith and Samaya Rodriguez make their way across Ashland Plaza on Monday photo by Holly Dillemuth

Through the program, which is in its first year, Hoffman is teaching them dance and “Double Dutch” (a jump rope routine for two) and having a whole lot of fun doing it.

“And just really bringing unity and … leading by example,” she said. “It’s my heart. We need each other.”

To view a video of Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, click here.

Note: D.L. Richardson is a board member of

Reach staff reporter Holly Dillemuth at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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