What does Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message mean to citizens in 2016? Coronado resident Lesley Huffaker wondered that very fact as she prepared to be the keynote speaker at the Coronado Island Film Festival’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the historic Glorietta Bay Inn.
In the 1960s Lesley was an active participant in the civil rights movement. As an exchange student from Los Angeles to the historic African American Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Lesley agitated for civil rights for her black peers. She participated in lunch counter sit-ins; saving seats at lunch counters, so that black activists could sit at lunch counters in unison. She laid in a coffin, dressed as a KKK member- serving as a symbol of the death of Jim Crow laws. She met and sat at the feet of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with other college students. Dr. King commented to her that she “must have had some parents” to be putting herself at risk of violence in order to support the civil rights of others.
As she arrived at the Glorietta Bay Inn, Lesley was surprised to see the upper patio swelling with film festival participants. It was a celebratory atmosphere as film festival participants sipped champagne and noshed on the hotel’s delectable hors d’oeuvres.
Once the program started, the atmosphere changed quickly from celebratory to emotional. Claudia Ludlow, General Manager of the Glorietta Bay Inn, welcomed everyone there, whose numbers swelled into every corner of the drawing room. Claudia, who is a fourth generation Coronadan of African American descent, spoke and acknowledged that the Glorietta Bay Inn was deeply honored to be selected to host and sponsor the Martin Luther King Jr. Day event.
After this welcome, Angela Petty opened everyone’s heart while singing our National Anthem. Our mayor, Casey Tanaka, then issued a proclamation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and introduced Laurens Grant. Laurens Grant is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. The Film Festival was pleased to screen three of her films: Jesse Owens, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and Freedom Riders. Ms. Grant spoke of her honor and pleasure of having her films highlighted at the film festival.
The momentum of the afternoon continued to swell as Jay Donnell, an actor and singer with the San Diego Musical Theatre read an excerpt of Dr. King’s “I have a dream speech.” Following Mr. Donnell’s moving rendering of the speech, Nicole Pryor, also with the San Diego Musical Theater, joined Mr. Donnell in song accompanied by Don Le Master, also with the theater, in a vocal performance of “Wheels of a Dream.” The two singing stars will be performing in a production of Ragtime, which opens Feb. 5 at Spreckels Theatre.
The apex of the celebration was when Angela Petty (whose father worked at Shop 94 at North Island for 37 years) returned to the microphone to sing “We Shall Overcome.” Ms. Petty invited all in attendance to link arms and join her in song. As we all joined together in a massive messy circle to sing the first verses and then adding “Today” as in “We shall overcome, TODAY,” the emotion in the room was palatable. No doubt Ms. Petty was inviting the crowd to remember that there is still injustice and racism to be overcome in 2016.
After she left the microphone, tears were wiped away by many, including Coronado High School graduate and celebrated movie producer, Lisa Bruce, who lead the request for Ms. Perry to continue leading the audience in song. Ms. Perry had already taken her seat, but could be heard whispering to herself that this impromptu song, “will have to come from [her] heart.” I don’t think I was alone in predicting that Ms. Perry, who sings in her Baptist Church Choir, had the song “Amazing Grace” stirring in her heart, and indeed, that was the song that she sang, producing more of the same emotion that was being carried throughout the afternoon. Council persons Carrie Downey and Mike Woiwode, like all others, were riveted by the performance.
Afterwards, Mike Woiwode shared that he had grown up in Detroit and had gone to high school and college in the 1960s and saw much of what was portrayed in Laurens Grant’s Freedom Riders. He was grateful to hear about that time from the arching view of historical reflection, and that these special performances were a gift to all in attendance.
Andy Friedenberg, executive director of the Film Festival, said that “he was so pleased with the inaugural year of the Film Festival and was looking forward to building momentum for next year.” He hoped everyone had just as much fun as he did.
Doug St. Denis, executive director and founder of the Coronado Island Film Festival, said she was proud of the tone of the film festival: That it was welcoming, hospitable, kind. She reflected that she was pleased that the festival nurtured budding filmmakers and celebrated established filmmakers.
Retired Lt. Col. Alfonzo Farson said he decided to attend the event after hearing Lesley speak on KUSI in the morning. When Lesley recalled in that interview that Dr. King had told her and the other young activists, “if you are going to be angry today, if you think you might feel violent, take the day off.” Lt. Col. Farson said that these words are as true today as they were in the 1960s and that is one of the reason Dr. King was such a leader, because his words should guide our actions just as strongly in 2016 as they did in 1965.