Community members of UC Santa Barbara and downtown Santa Barbara gathered to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy through a campus event on Jan. 11 and a program at the Arlington Theatre on Jan. 16. The two events came alongside the series of local programming organized to commemorate the holiday. 

The Eternal Flame, a gift from the class of 1968, symbolizes peace between nations. Shiuan Cheng / Daily Nexus

The Thursday event held the 17th annual “Walk With Us” march, with an overarching theme of interconnectedness.

At 11 a.m., organizers from Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity (APA), Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the Office of Black Student Development (OBSD) and the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee of Santa Barbara (MLKSB) congregated to begin the commemoration. 

Speakers addressed MLK’s enduring philosophies and his significance to activism on campus and to the city of Santa Barbara at the Eternal Flame in the Buchanan courtyard. 

“His legacy reminds us that he, above all else, was committed to stimulate the ambition of our citizens. To prepare them for the greatest usefulness in the causes of humanity, freedom and dignity of the individual and to aid downtrodden humanity in its efforts to achieve higher social economic and intellectual status,” Christian Zuniga, the sorority and fraternity life coordinator for the Office of Student Engagement and Leadership and former APA president, said. 

About 30 staff, students and faculty walked from the Eternal Flame to North Hall, stopping at a mural depicting the building’s 1968 takeover by disenfranchised Black students, and ending at the MultiCultural Center (MCC) Lounge at 1 p.m. 

Zuniga described MLK’s lifework and his ties to APA as a member during his studies at Cornell University. APA is the oldest intercollegiate Black American national organization — founded in 1909 — whose prominent members also included Frederick Douglass, Jesse Owens and W.E.B. Du Bois.

“Dr. King truly embodied the values of Alpha: manly deeds, scholarship and love for all mankind. He was a father, a husband, reverend, activist, scholar, a brother and so, so much more,” Zuniga said.

MLKSB Board President E. onja Brown reflected on the efforts of her committee on campus and in the city of Santa Barbara. 

The Eternal Flame, a gift from the class of 1968, symbolizes peace between nations. In 2015, following complaints that the flame was not always visibly lit, MLKSB aided UCSB Black engineers in keeping the flame on. 

Additionally, Brown noted that the city of Santa Barbara did not recognize MLK as a holiday until 1986, two years after its officiation. MLKSB founding member Sojourner Kincaid Rolle helped organize advocacy campaigns with Shirley Kennedy to meet this end.

The Civil Rights Act, Brown said, helped propel environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. 

“‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all directly,’” Brown quoted MLK during her speech.

EOP Director Tara Jones called for the Black American diaspora — African peoples of “diverse cultures, ethnicities, nations and faith-traditions” across the globe — to come together and work toward “collective action” as MLK envisioned. 

“Let us explore our differences so that we can work through them and towards a collective understanding of what we can be as we strive to unify across differences, to form community bonds of mutual support, inclusion and — I daresay — love,” Jones said. “Only then can we begin to realize Dr. King’s dream.”

Once the group gathered at the mural inside North Hall, advocacy counselor for the OBSD Mekhi Mitchell commemorated the 1968 North Hall takeover, where members of the Black Student Union sieged the building and demanded UCSB take action to support Black students. Their demands resulted in the development of the Department of Black Studies, a commission to investigate problems resulting from racism and the MCC, among other developments.

“The North Hall takeover is a testament to the enduring spirit of Dr. King’s vision. It was an assertion of agency, a demand for inclusivity and a call for systematic change. This bold and courageous action not only transformed the campus but also echoed the sentiments of Dr. King’s own pleas for civil justice and equality,” Mitchell said. 

“As we stand here today on the shoulders of those who marched and protested for a more just society, we must carry the torch ignited by Dr. King and upheld by those who sought change within our own very institution.” 

The walk concluded with a reception at the MCC Lounge, where food was provided. 

“I’m very moved by the overwhelming amount of support from staff that showed up,” Zuniga said in a Nexus interview. “I love the acknowledgment for the Black community and the work that Dr. King did, also acknowledging the ’68 takeover because we wouldn’t have some of the ethnic studies and gender studies [courses] that we have today.”

The MLKSB subsequently held its 17th annual holiday celebration in downtown Santa Barbara on Monday. 

The event featured multiple speakers, musical and dance performances, poetry readings and award ceremonies. This was the culmination of MLKSB’s five-day celebration that started on Thursday, Jan. 11, with the MLK Jr. Eternal Flame program and “Walk With Us” at the Buchanan Hall lawn.

The morning program for MLK day began with Barbareño Chumash Tribe member Mia Lopez and her family leading an opening song and prayer at De La Guerra Plaza.

Morning program master of ceremonies and MLKSB Vice President Isaac Garrett then dedicated the morning program to MLKSB founding member and former president Derrick Curtis, who passed away last September. Garrett held a moment of silence in his honor. 

The central theme for 2024’s celebration was “The time is always ripe to do right.” Westmont College associate professor of philosophy Edward Song wove this quote into his keynote speech for the morning program.

“‘The time is always ripe to do right,’ Dr. King tells us,” Song said. “This is true whenever we see injustice, the lost, the least and the lonely being excluded and left out.”

Song said King’s beliefs have become diluted and simplified as his legacy has become institutionalized. 

“If you’re here today and celebrating Dr. King’s legacy isn’t at least a little challenging for you, then maybe you’ve missed something,” Song said. “Because Dr. King’s mission and message were doubly radical and should be challenging for all of us.”

To conclude the morning program, the non-profit dance organization World Dance for Humanity, led by executive director Janet Reineck, invited the audience to participate in dance. 

Following the morning program, the crowd marched up State Street toward the Arlington Theatre in a Unity March. Members of the crowd sang as they walked and others held up signs. 

Beginning the Arlington Theatre program, Ruby Agoha sang “The Black National Anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Brown then read excerpts from a recent poem written by Rolle, who passed away last November. The Arlington Program was dedicated to her. 

Program master of ceremonies Ademola Oyewole-Davis introduced three elected officials from the city and county of Santa Barbara — U.S. Congressman Salud Carbajal, Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse and California State Senator Monique Limón. Limón spoke about how the fight for equality still isn’t over.

“We look around and we still see the disproportionate challenges to our Black community, to our Latino community, to our low-income community, to women in so many areas like education, housing, health, job security, homeownership, the list goes on and on,” Limón said.  

The program also included awards for MLKSB’s annual essay and poetry contest, which revolved around MLKSB’s central theme for 2024. Musical performances included performances from Miriam Dance, the Inner Light Gospel Choir, Taylor Johnson and The Riviera Ridge School Choir.

UCSB environmental studies professor David Pellow delivered the final keynote speech of the event, sharing his mother Mary Lee Pless’ experience of being denied service at a Nashville restaurant at school in the early 1960s because she was Black.

Shortly afterward in 1963 while King was in jail, Pless and other protesters rallied against segregation within restaurants and became the catalyst for the mayor of Nashville desegregating all restaurants in the city via executive order.

“It was a major civil rights victory for human rights and human decency,” Pellow said. “Mary could waltz and sashay right into that establishment and order and be served that hamburger – you better believe she did that.”

He acknowledged how the different demographics originating in varying cities led to the intersectionality of environmental injustice, lower-income families and people of color.

“Spatial separation and disrespect led people of color to be forced to live next to garbage dumps, to live next to hazardous waste landfills, to live next to municipal solid waste,” Pellow said. “Why? We know why — because Black folks were viewed as less than, as subhuman, as undeserving of civil rights and equal rights and consideration.”

Pellow called citizens to action, encouraging them to stand up against institutionalized racism for their sake and for those around them.

“What good is the right to vote if you can’t even breathe air in your neighborhood without choking? What good is the right to vote if you can’t drink water from your own kitchen sink without gagging because it’s contaminated with lead and visibly polluted?” Pellow said.

The MLKSB hosts this event commemorating King annually, and their website contains links to anti-racist resources and readings for those who are interested in learning more about racial injustice.

A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Jan. 18, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus.


Lizzy Rager
Lizzy Rager (she/her) is the Assistant News Editor for the 2024-25 school year. She can be reached at