NEWARK -- Jean Ficklin never saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak in person, but the slain civil rights leader's courage and eloquent calls for social justice through nonviolence inspired her for a lifetime.
That is why Ficklin, leader of the Newark-based Afro-American Cultural and Historical Society, long has presented ceremonies that honor King's memory. She'll continue that tradition at 3 p.m. Sunday, when she has scheduled the 37th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Program.
The free event will feature speeches by local pastors and elected officials, and performances by youth and church musical groups.
"Days like these are important because we need to inspire our youth," said Ficklin, 82. "They can be inspired by Dr. King's life and from speeches by those who remember him."
King, the civil rights movement's pre-eminent leader in the 1950s and '60s, worked tirelessly to inspire millions of people worldwide to join him in ending bigotry and racial inequality.
He was 39 when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.
But his spirit has lived on in the work of those he inspired. That includes Ficklin, one of the first African-American teachers in the Newark Unified School District. In 1974, she founded the Afro-American Cultural and Historical Society, an organization that long has sponsored youth programs and cultural events in southern Alameda County.
"As soon as I decided (the Tri-City area) would be my home, my endeavor has been to make a contribution to this community," Ficklin said.
Mary Sass, a Fremont member of Ficklin's organization, said she attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that King led in 1963. There, he delivered perhaps his most admired speech, "I Have a Dream."
"There were so many people from so many different races who were talking, singing, eating, holding hands and doing it all together," said Sass, 72. "I thought, 'Why can't we do this every day?'"
Bringing together people from all backgrounds is one of Ficklin's goals for this weekend's ceremony at First Presbyterian Church of Newark, 35450 Newark Blvd.
Ficklin said she scheduled the event a week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to make local youths aware of the annual national holiday, held this year on Jan. 20. King's dream of racial equality has not yet become reality, Ficklin said, noting that it will be up to the nation's younger generations to finish the job.
"We're losing a lot of young people to violence," she said. "There's much, much work to be done."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Program will be presented by the Afro-American Cultural and Historical Society, 3 p.m. Sunday, First Presbyterian Church of Newark, 35450 Newark Blvd., Newark. Information at 510-793-8181.