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Celebrating King's legacy

ASHLAND — James "Jamie" Auchincloss of Ashland was among the hundreds shivering in a line which wrapped around the block waiting to pay tribute to Martin Luther King — a man Auchincloss had heard speak 40 years before.

"I heard Dr. King speak at the National Cathedral five days before his death," said Auchincloss. "Washington broke out in riots after that," he said, adding buildings were filled with smoke and flames for several days following King's assassination in 1968.

A crowd of 800 people packed the Historic Ashland Armory Monday to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the voice of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

The 20th annual event showed clips of King's speeches on large screen videos, including a portion of his famous, "I have a dream," speech:

"We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

Elizabeth V. Hallett of Ashland, a self-proclaimed "old peace activist," said she has attended many celebrations of King's life.

"Martin Luther King encapsulates the moral fiber of our American history in the tradition of non-violence as a hopeful tool for peaceful change," she said.

Performances were lively, kicking off with Walker Elementary School third and fourth graders singing, "Share the World." From hip hop and uplifting songs to poetry and excerpts from King's speeches, performers of all ages took the stage. Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors thumped out an original rap tune, the Planned Parenthood Teen Theater put on a skit about race discrimination and Bill Rauch, the new artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival gave the keynote speech. D. L. Richardson, a Southern Oregon University instructor, was the master of ceremonies. The crowd applauded generously for all the acts, but the most robust standing ovation was for UNETE, a local farm-worker advocacy group, after they raised signs reading, "Fight ignorance not immigrants."

King, a Baptist minister, was known for his non-violent protests and eloquent speeches for compassion and social justice. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, at age 35, for his efforts to end segregation and racial discrimination.

King was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn.

Auchincloss, the half-brother of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, said part of the attraction to King was his ability to give great speeches.

"Southern Baptist preachers ... are very good speakers," he said. "Look at Huckabee." Auchincloss said there are leaders today of King's caliber, such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, but that times have changed.

"Leadership is an awfully dangerous thing, like Benazir Bhutto found out," he said.

Hallett said leadership comes from within.

"We shouldn't look for leaders, we should just lead," she said.

Hallett said she's surprised it's taken 40 years, since King's death, for a black presidential candidate to get to where Barack Obama is now.

"We should have been able to create more positions of leadership for people of color before now," she said.

In addition to Monday's event, Sunday's Martin Luther King tribute at South Medford High School in Medford was also well-attended, with about 350 audience members, said organizer Marisa Petersen of the Martin Luther King Task Force.

Reach reporter Meg Landers at 776-4481 or e-mail mlanders@mailtribune.com.