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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Mary Avendano, left, hugs Ruth Arevalo to thank her for delivering items from the Utah Food Bank Monday as part of a service project for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly half a century after Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said those "four simple words," blacks in Utah have watched barriers felled and milestones reached in an ongoing fight for equality.

From smaller victories, such as the successful push to delay the start of the Utah Legislature to honor King, to the historic election of President Barack Obama, black leaders lauded the strides toward equality Monday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"The dream is now a reality," Bridgette Waters, of the New Pilgrim Baptist Church, told a crowd gathered at Sugarhouse Park, hearkening back to King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Col. Yolanda Dennis-Lowman, commander of the Tooele Army Depot, is herself a symbol of the nation's progress. During the NAACP Salt Lake branch's 26th annual Martin Luther King luncheon Monday, Dennis-Lowman recalled the service of the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen who could have hardly imagined a day when the nation's military would allow blacks in leadership.

From $65-a-plate lunches to rallies and service projects, the day was dedicated to King and his dream for equality.

"We don't want folks to use today as a day off, but to honor the works of Dr. King," said Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch.

Despite the progress that has been made, many said the fight was not over.

"Don't let this mislead you," said Edward Lewis Jr. during the NAACP fundraiser at the Little America Hotel. "We still have much to do."

Before the crowd at Sugarhouse Park began a march to the University of Utah, Waters and other religious leaders told participants to "keep the dream alive."

"Keeping the dream alive means we must not wait until January of each year to remember the dream," Waters said.

Speakers instructed people to "stop using excuses for why we cannot do something" and to take "personal action."

"It was a dream for yesterday, today and tomorrow," said minister Rob Merrill of the Calvary Baptist Church. "But you don't have to be Martin Luther King … to be willing to take a stand and make a difference."

e-mail: afalk@desnews.com