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Utahns celebrate King, civil rights with marches, service

Published: Monday, Jan. 16 2012 6:50 p.m. MST

Marchers walk along 13th East as part of the University of Utah 2012 King Celebration which included a rally at East High School followed by march to Kingsbury Hall and a celebration in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, Jan. 16, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Avery Friedman, a CNN legal analyst and civil rights lawyer, said he first gained interest in civil rights about five minutes after he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a march in Louisville, Ky., in 1963.

But it wasn't Dr. King that made such an impression on the young pre-med student. Rather, it was the end of a policeman's club.

Friedman gave the keynote address Monday at the Utah NAACP's annual MLK Day luncheon in Salt Lake City. The event was one of many throughout the area marking the birthday of the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968.

Among other events Monday, the University of Utah and Westminster College held commemorative marches. Polynesian dancers performed Monday evening at Kingsbury Hall, and service projects were held throughout the valley.

Friedman said that when he met King, he didn't fully appreciate the historic role the Atlanta preacher would play. At the invitation of a friend, Friedman had gone to the march against housing discrimination mostly hoping to see his musical idol Mary Travers of the folk group, Peter Paul and Mary, who was also participating.

"To be honest with you, I wasn't really all that moved with Dr. King," he said. "He was just an ordinary guy. I was looking for Mary Travers.

But minutes after he met the civil rights leader, "things got out of hand" at the march, Friedman remembered. Police wielding nightsticks attacked the marchers. As the police were beating his friend, one officer asked Friedman, "Are you with this guy?"

"If I'd had half a brain, I would have said 'no,'" Friedman remembered with a laugh. But for his affirmative answer, the police began to beat him. He said it changed his life.

"I still remember what it felt like when those clubs came down," he said. "And that changed everything. When somebody does something like that to you, you remember."

The pre-med student changed his focus to the law. Since then he has litigated some 2,000 federal civil rights cases, become a nationally recognized expert, and for the past 11 years he has been watched by 3 million viewers as a legal analyst on the CNN show, "Legal Briefs."

Friedman said he could not single out any particular area of civil rights that now needs attention the most. The effort goes on against discrimination in housing, employment, access to credit, and other areas, he said.

In the cause of civil rights, Friedman said he places more stock in the law than in changing racist attitudes, he said.

"I gave up on trying to change attitudes. It would be great if everyone loved everyone else," he said, noting that in a free country, people are free to hate whomever they want to hate. "The law won't make people love each other, but it will enjoin the heartless."

Friedman also commented on Monday's announcement that former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. has ended his presidential campaign. The Republican presidential campaign is losing an important proponent of civil rights, he said.

"The Republican Party is diminished. That is an extraordinary man. He is balanced, intelligent, rational, compassionate … all the things I think Dr. King embodied.

Many attending the luncheon came from diverse backgrounds from throughout the world.

Twenty-five fourth grade violin students, from Salt Lake City's Bennion Elementary School, played for the nearly 400 luncheon-goers. Many of the students are from immigrant families coming from places such as Somalia, Burma, Croatia, Mexico, Guatemala and West Africa, teacher Carly Winslow said.

Also accompanying the children was Bennion principal James Yapias, who said he came with his family from Peru when he was 13 years old.

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