Vacaville gathers to celebrate MLK’s legacy

For the second year in a row, an intimate crowd gathered in Andrews Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to honor the word and the legacy of the civil rights leader.

The event, put on by Vacaville People’s Forum, invoked all the things that Dr. King called for in his life: equality, unity, brotherhood, and more.

Organizer Aisha Gutierrez, who spearheaded the event last year, told The Reporter that with it being a grassroots event, she was pleased with the turnout.

“I’m comfortable, especially with the climate and COVID right now, with keeping it an intimate group,” she said, “but I’d love to see what it can be with an expansion of eventually having vendors and food and really having a full celebration.”

Gutierrez told the crowd that the event was a way to emphasize what she loves about Vacaville, which is its sense of community. She did so by bringing community leaders together to share messages of hope.

Event organizer, Aisha Gutierrez of Vacaville delivers her opening remarks during the second annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day – Celebration of Community, Unity, and Peace Monday in Andrews Park.(Joel Rosenbaum / The Reporter)

“Martin Luther King’s vision of hope and peace and unity is an opportunity to remember that,” she said. “It’s a time to remember that we all have a common ground here and want to see the best of this community.”

Gutierrez then introduced Brooke Fox, executive director of the Downtown Vacaville Business Improvement District, who said downtown Vacaville was a place for everybody.

“The more that we can be involved in these types of events, the better,” she said. “We want to be inclusive, we want you all to enjoy your downtown.”

Fox, herself a longtime singer-songwriter, performed a rendition of folk singer Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain,” inspired by King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered before his assassination in 1968. The song utilizes the speech’s themes and encourages listeners to be resilient on the road to equality.

Brooke Fox of Vacaville performs “Over The Mountain” by Patricia Griffin Monday during the second annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day – Celebration of Community, Unity, and Peace Rally Monday in Andrews Park. The song was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1968 “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, given the day before his assassination.(Joel Rosenbaum / The Reporter)

Councilman Nolan Sullivan talked about the city’s growing efforts to talk about diversity and inclusion and pointed out that the majority of the City Council and school board were present at Wednesday’s event.

“You have a quorum,” he said. “You have the overwhelming majority of both of your elected bodies of the city here today.”

Sullivan read the “Place of Peace” proclamation that was approved by the council last year and which was inspired by a movement spearheaded by former teacher Patricia Hunter in 1999. Hunter, who witnessed racism firsthand as the wife of a Black man, was inspired to create placards declaring Vacaville as a “Place of Peace” following the shootings at Columbine High School and the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center that year to let people know that Vacaville was a safe place and that bigotry and hatred were not allowed.

Within a year, the City Council and Vacaville Unified School District approved “Place of Peace” resolutions, and Soroptimist International dedicated a plaque outside the CreekWalk. The project was renewed in 2020, and the decals were again made available.

Sullivan encouraged the public to hold elected and city officials as well as everyone else responsible to ensure the words of the proclamation is followed.

“Vacaville really is a place of peace, and it takes all of us to make it so,” he said.

Jovanni Silva, 11 of Vacaville raises his fist as he finishes reciting the closing section of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech to conclude a peace rally held in his memory Monday in Andrews Park.(Joel Rosenbaum / The Reporter)

Councilman Michael Silva relayed a story of him recently driving through town with his son and talking about the different struggles they and others have experienced. From this discussion, Silva’s son asked “Is life hard?” Silva initially responded that life gets easier, but he later came to realize that this was not true for everyone.

“When we say, ‘Little by little, things are getting better,’ it may make some of us feel better, but in reality, systemically, we haven’t been able to address that,” he said.

Silva said the definition of “hard” may be different for everyone, but once people realize life is difficult, they can realize what they have in common with others.

“Rather than hiding the problems — rather than making ourselves feel good about it –, we actually identify, start coming together, working together to actually address, step by step, different things that we can no longer be complacent,” he said. “Are you guys ready to commit to that?”

Johnicon George, president of the Tri-City NAACP, reminded the audience that King died for the struggle to ensure equality.

“We must always remind ourselves and be intentional about making sure that his life and his legacy live on,” he said. “I encourage you all to honor his life and his legacy and to be conscious about not commercializing his message nor the movement. I encourage you all not to water down the seriousness of the issues going on here in Vacaville.”

Beth Krumenacker hugs her son, Sean Santellan, 10 while listening to the speakers during the second annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day – Celebration of Community, Unity, and Peace Monday in Andrews Park with her husband, Daniel Santellan, and son, Alex.(Joel Rosenbaum / The Reporter)

George highlighted the Tri-City NAACP’s initiatives for 2022: reparations for dependents of slaves, more accountability for law enforcement in Solano County and strengthening voter education and civic engagement for all residents.

“The Tri-City NAACP will be more engaged and more visible here in Vacaville,” he said.

George closed by emphasizing that King “never hesitated to bring up injustices against Black people whenever he spoke.”

“I challenge you, 17 days into the new year, to use your power, use your privilege and pay the price to eradicate injustices to ensure a democracy that raises all Americans,” he said, paraphrasing a passage from King’s 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

School board Trustee Kelly Welsh highlighted some of the work VUSD has done recently, including offering an ethnic studies course for high schoolers, starting an Equity Task Force and the board unanimously passing a resolution last week honoring King’s life and legacy for the first time.

“Vacaville Unified School District works to achieve equity in our schools, and I’m proud of the work our students and staff do to ensure this,” she said.

Welsh also said the Senate’s hesitancy to pass voting rights legislation was “a disgrace.”

“Dr. King stood for equality in voting rights,” she said. “It is my opinion that Congress must pass federal legislation to protect the right to vote, a right that is under attack.”

As with the previous year, the keynote address of the event was King’s words themselves. Once again, 16 students ranging from elementary to high schoolers read different portions of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

Gutierrez said she hopes the audience took away the spirit of unity and community.

“Today is supposed to be a day of service,” she said. “Whatever that means to people, I hope they take away doing something within the community.”

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