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Amid concern, a message of hope Martin Luther King Jr. sets theme for speakers

He was a preacher who transformed a nation, and Western New Yorkers, along with the rest of the country, joined together Sunday to celebrate the birth and honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

This year's King holiday activities were the first since the death of Coretta Scott King, who died Jan. 31 at age 78 of complications from ovarian cancer and after suffering a stroke five months earlier.

Often referred to as King's widow, Coretta Scott King has been lauded recently as an activist in her own right. She also fought to shape and preserve her husband's legacy after his assassination on April 4, 1968.

Their oldest daughter, Yolanda King, reminded those remembering her parents Sunday in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta -- where her father preached -- that America has not yet attained peace and racial equality.

"We must keep reaching across the table and, in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, feed each other," King, 51, said at the end of an hourlong presentation that was part motivational speech, part drama.

The stage and television actress performed a series of one-actor skits that told stories, including a girl's first ride on a desegregated bus and a college student's recollection of the 1963 desegregation of Birmingham, Ala.

At St. John Baptist Church in Buffalo, the question was raised: If he were alive in 2007, what would King say?

"I think if he was here today he would certainly be concerned at conditions in society," Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said before addressing the hundreds of celebrants. "I think he would be saddened in some way, but he would also be encouraged by the many positive changes that have been made in society."

Sponsored by Concerned Citizens Following the Dream, Sunday's event featured some of Buffalo's best-known preachers, who echoed Brown's belief that while conditions are not what they should be, there is hope.

"Let us not succumb to the divisions and conflict," said Anthony G. Harris, pastor of Free Spirit Baptist Church. "The dream can become a reality."

Many of the speakers, who included the Rev. Ronald Sajdak of St. Martin De Porres Catholic Church, the Rev. Richard Stenhouse of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Darius Pridgen of True Bethel Full Gospel Baptist Church, felt while progress has been made, there is still much work to be done.

How long will it take?

Pridgen says that it won't be long, "but we're not there yet."

The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo will celebrate King's life at 2 p.m. today in Infant of Prague Church, 921 Cleveland Drive, Cheektowaga.

Almost 100 people attended a program Sunday honoring King in the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society Museum.

Leo Richardson, executive director of the South Carolina Institute on Poverty and Deprivation, was the guest speaker and was asked to share some of the accomplishments that King gave his life for.

For one, the institute has started a community-based program in two of the poorest congressional districts in South Carolina. The issues range from adult literacy, child care and criminal justice to transportation, predatory lending and funding public schools. Also, Richardson and the institute started a teen pregnancy prevention program that's now nationally known, he said, adding that teen pregnancy has gone down 60 percent in South Carolina since the program began.

"I think that's what Martin Luther King would have us do in his absence," Richardson said. "I think he would be proud of us in terms of what we've done so far."

Richardson lived in Buffalo until 1984. He was a head basketball coach at the University at Buffalo and he received his Ph.D. in educational administration from the university.

Currently, the Institute in South Carolina is working to implement a local program dealing with poverty prevention and intervention.

The goal is for families to get off public assistance and become self-sufficient.

"So local problems can be solved by local people," he said.

Meanwhile, civil rights leaders called on Utah, the last state in the nation to establish a King holiday, to change its constitution and recognize it. The state's constitution says that legislators must report to work on the third Monday of January every year to open their annual session.

Associated Press dispatches con tributed to this report.

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