An annual celebration of unity to honor Martin Luther King Jr. held a bit more special meaning Monday, a day before Barack Obama's inauguration.
The event, organized by the 11-year-old Breakthrough Project group that responds to hate crimes, had a number of heartfelt speeches and culminated in the energetic songs of a high school chorus.
"Eleven years ago we had our first celebration, and the next day, we had a cross burning in the city of Lodi," said Randy Rosa, one of the group's founders. "Eleven years later, we're having a celebration and the next day we're going to inaugurate an African-American as president."
Monday's celebration brought about 125 parents, children, teachers, local dignitaries and community members to Millswood Middle School. Every year it is sponsored by the volunteer Breakthrough Project, which formed in the aftermath of the cross-burning at Tokay School.
The speakers, ranging from Police Chief David Main to elementary essay contest winners, issued several challenges to those gathered.
Mayor Larry Hansen encouraged people to find a way of helping others. He recounted a couple times when he debated whether to buy homeless people a sandwich, wondering if it would embarrass them. But it didn't and instead the homeless were grateful for the gesture.
"My challenge to you is to find some way for an act of kindness in the people you come across. I think that's what Martin Luther King Jr. would want," Hansen said.
And guest speaker Jenny Jones, who grew up in the Hunter's Point Projects of San Francisco, challenged others to get to know their neighbors.
Jones, who is black, recounted the time one of his sons came home from school and asked why he was the only dark-skinned one in class. Jones told him that character, not skin color, is important.
"One way we can jump start this year of change, this year of togetherness, is to get to know each other," he said, recalling when Fred Rogers started each episode of his "Mr. Rogers" show by going to visit neighborhoods.
Vanessa Saldana, a Borchardt Elementary School student who was awarded second place Monday for an essay contest, had similar words. Sometimes different clothing and customs are feared or avoided by students who simply don't understand the differences, she said in her essay, which she read to the audience.
"If they took an interest in each other's differences, they might find that they're very similar," Saldana said.
Before some 35 members of the McNair High School choir closed the hour-long celebration, Jones explained the presence of five laundry detergent bottles on stage.
"You have Gain, you have Tide, you have Tide with a touch of Downey, you even have Cheer with a touch of Downey," he said. "But they all come from the same creator - Proctor and Gamble."
How will Barack Obama's inauguration affect race relations in the United States?
Asked of Breakthrough Project members on Monday at the Celebration of Unity to honor Martin Luther King Jr.