ANCHORAGE, Alaska — On a big Anchorage stage Sunday afternoon, a group of refugees from southern Sudan sang their hearts out and even though almost no one in the audience understood their tribal language, their joy and passion translated perfectly.
The Sudanese singers, who live in Anchorage now, were among the featured groups in the Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
It was the first time the Sudanese have performed in the annual celebration. These refugees who fled civil war and threats and violence in Africa are becoming settled in their northern home, becoming more involved, said the Rev. Michael Washtour, a leader of the emerging Sudanese population here.
King didn't just want social justice for African-Americans born here — he wanted it for all people, black or white, wherever they are from, said Washtour, who left Sudan in 1992 and has lived in the United States for years. He came to Anchorage 10 months ago and is already an associate pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church and a bilingual tutor for the Anchorage School District.
"We benefit from the same dream," Washtour said.
At Sunday's three-hour-event, hundreds of people gathered in honor of King to sing and pray, laugh and listen.
Like Anchorage itself, the event is becoming more multicultural. There were Hmong, Samoan, Tongan and black dancers. The speakers were black and white, Tlingit and Yup'ik, Hispanic and Polynesian. The Sudanese singers sang in the Nuer tribal language.
The day's theme was about passing the mantle from old to young to continue the fight for racial and social equality.
The King event coincides with momentous changes for Sudan. News reports say voters in Sudan appear to have approved a referendum for the south to secede and form its own country. Sudanese people in Anchorage demonstrated in support of succession, Washtour said. They hope the promise of economic development for the south will be realized as it becomes an independent nation.
One of the singers from Sudan was Sarah Reath, 40, a mother of eight who left the event early to go to her job as a personal caregiver. While the election results are great, family back in Sudan has suffered for decades, and nothing will change right away, she said.
"They still hungry. They still sick. And they don't have place to live. They still dying."
She worries for them even as she's grateful for the opportunities she's had here. She said she knows that King's work helped make her life possible. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich talked to the crowd about last week's Arizona shootings and about earlier violence, including the assassinations of King and President John F. Kennedy.
"Unfortunately, some Americans will shrug their shoulders and say Tucson and the other tragedies are simply the acts of deranged individuals. That this is a terrible price we sometimes pay for personal liberty and strong constitutional rights," Begich told the crowd. "There is of course some truth to that. But that line of thinking is also an easy way out."
The tone of political discourse in America should be assessed, Begich said. That doesn't mean citizens should be stifled or that pundits cannot be passionate. But they should be more civil and take time to reflect, he said.
King was perhaps the best model of that, Begich said. He advocated for civil disobedience, but also always talked about respect and nonviolence. That's what people need to keep in mind today, Begich said.
Anchorage District Court Judge Pamela Scott Washington — Alaska's first African-American woman judge — emphasized the theme of passing the mantle in her keynote address. Gov. Sean Parnell appointed her to the bench last year.
The old guard may be hesitant to pass the baton to a new generation of leaders. But it's time and they are ready, she said.
"They are busting out at the seams. They are young and restless because we haven't turned things over to them. We haven't given them more opportunities," she said.
Washington said she appreciates Anchorage's rich diversity. When she was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, everyone talked about America as a melting pot.
But stir what's in a pot and "you really can't see any differences," she said. She prefers the salad bowl metaphor, lettuce and tomatoes, fruits and nuts, all different, all working together.
"You look at that bowl and they are all in there. The individual and the diversity, all different things that we bring to the table and I think that's what makes this city a great place to live in, because of the great diversity."
So much has changed for the better since King gave his famous speech in 1963, said Washington. She was 1 year old. She's 48 now. Sometimes people get consumed by the battles not yet won and can't see all that has been gained, she said.
When she graduated from Chugiak High School in 1980, "I was the only black girl in my senior class. There weren't even African Americans at Chugiak High School years ago."
Washington gave young people an assignment. Go home and write about the life they envision for themselves. Write their own obituary, like she had to do in college.
Maybe, she said, they will dream big, as she did. Maybe thinking about it will help them live it.
Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com