In the 24th annual celebration of Ashland's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, dancers, singers and speakers made it clear the event has gone beyond a call for equality to a coming together as one community to help anyone in need.

In the 24th annual celebration of Ashland's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, dancers, singers and speakers made it clear the event has gone beyond a call for equality to a coming together as one community to help anyone in need.

The capacity crowd of more than 1,000 people leapt to its feet to applaud keynote speaker Mary Ferrell, executive director of Medford's Maslow Project for homeless teens, after she tearfully saluted those who had died.

"There's a lot of suffering right now," she said, noting people are losing their homes, the elderly are working into their 80s to get food, and young people are facing a cost of education that's prohibitive.

One in 10 Oregon teens are homeless, the highest rate in the nation, she said. And many are unable to navigate the social services system.

The crowd sang along with the Rogue Valley Gospel Group, a half-dozen singers from six area churches, and watched lively acts by the Crater High School Flag Team, MLK Celebration Mega Choir and Ashland Danceworks.

Rapper Ben Baden, a recent Ashland High School graduate, performed a tribute to King. (The spelling of Ben Baden's name has been corrected in this story.)

"King's dream was not just for him, but for everyone," Baden said. "He knew his days were limited and that he wouldn't see the result of his dream."

Marvin Woodard, coordinator of the Southern Oregon University Multicultural Resource Center, said, "His message was to combat hate with love ... and bring together people of all different colors and beliefs to build this community."

JoAnne Lewis of Ashland recalled the equal rights marches of her youth, noting, "He taught people how important it is to share everyday life and serve one another."

American Indian and actress DeLanna Studi of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival read Shawnee leader Tecumseh's words advising, "Respect all people but grovel to none. Abuse no one and when you die, don't cry for more time ... sing your death song and die like a hero going home."

Host D.L. Richardson, an SOU communications professor and African-American, showed photos on a big-screen TV from the collection of famed Alabama civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth and said the late reverend resisted President John Kennedy's call for an end to 1963 Birmingham marches by retorting, "This is a fire that cannot be put out."

Lissa Roberts, who performed the event in sign language, said, "I believe very deeply in King, how he created a community force that helped dissolve at least some of the social injustice."

Celebrants filled dozens of food bags set out by the Ashland Food Project, and co-founder John Javna showed a video detailing how simple it is to fill a bag and place it on your doorstep every eight weeks.

To much applause, Javna said, "We started three years ago with four volunteers and food from 50 homes. Now it's 29 tons of food from 4,500 houses across the valley. In a culture that's increasingly polarized and that increasingly divides people, we understand that everyone deserves enough food to eat.

"When committed people join forces, it can change society. Embrace the spirit of Dr. King. Show up and show your power. Help America become a more humane and loving society."

A hushed audience heard the words of King on the big screen talk about the inalienable right of Americans to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. "But if a man doesn't have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists."

As it does each year, the crowd marched with placards to the Ashland Plaza to hear King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech on speakers.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.