EL CERRITO -- Martin Luther King Jr. had an eloquent vision that inspired generations, and every year the city hosts its own rendition and celebration of the late civil rights leader's dream of a society in which all are valued and created equal.

Hundreds came to the city Monday for the 24th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, which included a parade through city streets and a program of speech, song and dance at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Center.

The parade, led by the ECHS Gaucho marching band, included riders on horseback from the Black Cowboys, members of the and a motorcycle contingent known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

"We just keep growing, just keep getting bigger and better," said Patricia Durham, event coordinator and member of St. Peter Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the city's lone African American congregation.

The 24th annual celebration in El Cerrito, the oldest observance in Contra Costa County, drew several hundred men, women and children.

"The event has grown so much through the years," said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia. "And its growth and energy have helped in the growth of other MLK Day events in surrounding communities too."

Durham said one of the highlights of this year's events was the inclusion of a Tuskegee Airman.


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Capt. Leslie "Les" Williams, 94, watched the ceremony and chatted with parents and young people at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Center. Williams was the first graduate of the bomber program at Tuskegee, Ala., which trained African American pilots during World War II.

"Les was one of the pioneers toward breaking the segregation of our armed forces," said Jay Richardson, vice president of the Bill Campbell Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. "He and his fellow soldiers' courage paved the way for the later desegregation order by (former President Harry) Truman and the further advances after."

The parade began at the Department of Motor Vehicles on Manila Avenue and ended at the performing arts center for the day's program, where speakers included state Assembly candidate Tony Thurmond and Black American Political Action Committee President Lloyd Madden.

Inside the rotunda adjoining the theater, volunteers decorated walls and tables with pictures, placards and literature on civil rights leaders. Among those prominently featured were King, President Barack Obama, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Negro League pitching savant Satchel Paige.

Durham, a longtime organizer of the event, said next year's "silver jubilee," marking 25 years for the El Cerrito observance, will be even bigger.

As with the advancement of civil rights itself, "The future is going to keep getting better," she said.

The event was sponsored by the city, St. Peter CME Church, the El Cerrito Branch of the NAACP and the West Contra Costa School District.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow Twitter.com/roberthrogers.