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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Volunteers, participate in Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and the launch of a new citywide volunteer program, Service In The City, by preparing food packages for elderly in need at a community service project on Monday, January 16 at 9 a.m. at the Utah Food Bank, Monday, Jan. 16, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
I still remember when my father took me aside and said, 'In this country anything is possible, if you work for it.' —Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill

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.

King's work affected his life, Yapias said. "What it means to me is that Dr. King, in the Civil Rights Movement, stood for equality and opportunity, and that opened doors for all of us — black, Hispanic, Native American…."

Because of King and the movement he led, "Every student has the opportunity to succeed," he said.

Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill, who also came to the luncheon, moved with his family from India to the United States when he was 10. King stands as a symbol throughout the world of the opportunity and equality that America offers, Gill said.

"There is a sense of opportunity here that is not just a promise," he said. "I still remember when my father took me aside and said, 'In this country anything is possible, if you work for it.'"   

Many of his fellow Indians also feel a connection to King because of the influence Mohandas Gandhi had on King's approach to civil disobedience, Gill said.

Other events Monday included the University of Utah's fourth annual "marade" — a march-parade, in which hundreds of people holding signs, pushing strollers and walking dogs braved the wintery weather to mark the day.

Following a rally at East High School, the crowd headed up 1300 East toward Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus. The rally featured keynote speaker, the Reverend France Davis, who also marched with King. Davis is the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church and a member of the state Board of Regents.

"The rally is a rousing event that kind of just pours out into the street," university organizer Colleen Cotas said. "We try to have fun with it."

Others marked Monday as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service.

The day's lesser-known federal designation was signed into law in 1994 and inspires many service projects, including one featuring Westminister students.

The students gathered at Salt Lake City's Sprague Library to make collection boxes for the Utah Food Bank. Others helped launch the volunteer program, Service in the City by preparing food packages for the elderly in need at the Salt Lake City food bank. Among other events throughout the valley, an American Red Cross Blood Drive was held at Murray High School Monday afternoon.

"I believe it is a day of celebration for all our human rights," Yapias said. "It embraces all our cultures and communities."

E-mail: lbrubaker@desnews.com