Days of hope and joy

How Chico celebrated King Day and Obama’s inauguration

DANCE OF CELEBRATION<br>Alexis Bennett, of the Origin Tribal Belly Dance troupe, saunters through the Inaugural Ball Tuesday evening. More than 300 people attended.

Alexis Bennett, of the Origin Tribal Belly Dance troupe, saunters through the Inaugural Ball Tuesday evening. More than 300 people attended.

Photo By Alan Sheckter

There were cheers and tears of joy Tuesday morning at Fifth and Eye, the little eatery on the corner of Fifth and Ivy streets in Chico, when Barack Obama became president of the United States. About 75 of his local campaign volunteers and other supporters were gathered to watch the event together, and they couldn’t have been happier.

Looking around the room and then up at the television screen and seeing the vast crowd on the Capitol Mall, it was easy to imagine thousands of similar groups in towns and cities across the land, watching this historic event at the same time.

And it wasn’t just the inauguration, which was surely sufficient by itself to make the moment extraordinary. It was also the confluence of the inauguration with the 80th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., without whose efforts and sacrifices the new president could not have been elected.

That King Day coincided with the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president was one of those magical coincidences that can elevate an event to almost mythic levels. And in Chico, as elsewhere throughout the land and in towns and cities around the world, folks celebrated this unprecedented moment.

For Joe Person Sr., who was born in the Deep South in 1929, the same year as King, it was one of the most stirring times of his life. As he explained to a large crowd at the King commemoration ceremony Sunday evening in Trinity United Methodist Church, he’d been ready to sit back and relax after leading the years-long effort to get a King memorial statue placed in Community Park and a street named after the fallen civil-rights leader. Then Obama came along, and he went back to work.

When he and his wife, Pearl, arrived in Chico in 1964, he said, there were only four black students at Chico State and no black faculty. The college’s three black employees were custodians. Today there are some 40 black teachers and more than 300 black students, though he lamented their lack of involvement in civil-rights events.

“My African-American brothers,” he said, “you are not there only because you are qualified. … King and the Civil Rights Movement gave you the opportunity.”

Of all the week’s events, the King ceremony was the most diverse, with many members of the black community attending and the youth choir of Bethel A.M.E. Church getting everyone on their feet and clapping along as they sang several rousing gospel songs.

On Monday, the actual King holiday, the focus was on community service. Heeding Obama’s call, more than 100 people participated in a half-dozen activities sponsored by the Sierra Club and other nonprofits, from cleaning up bike paths to working on a Habitat for Humanity house.

And at noon the group Chico for Obama Volunteers held a ceremony in City Plaza at which it donated $4,100 to the Salvation Army, the Torres shelter, Catalyst Domestic Services and the Jesus Center. The money had been raised at a Jan. 10 rummage sale and barbecue (Person Sr. at the grill) in Community Park.

On Tuesday morning, groups met in coffee shops and private homes all over town to watch the inauguration. In local schools, teachers turned on their television sets in the morning so students could watch the historic ceremony.

Obama’s inaugural speech was nothing if not a call to America’s better angels, to its history as the oldest and most exemplary democracy. So it’s perhaps fair to conjecture that, for most Chicoans, even many those who backed John McCain, Tuesday was a day of joy and pride in being American.

For local progressives, those who have shared Obama’s vision for many years and worked to advance it in Chico and Butte County, the day culminated in what was dubbed an “Inaugural Ball” at the Chico Masonic Family Center. More than 300 people showed up, and since everybody knew just about everybody else, it was a joyous affair.

Of course, this being Chico and the participants being progressives, which is to say Democrats and other assorted liberal types, and dance music being provided by Señor Felipe, the venerable KZFR disc jockey who specializes in “East L.A. sounds,” it was about as informal as a ball can get.

The food was good and the mood was jubilant. The Origin Tribal Belly Dance Troupe performed, as did the two-woman group Ma Muse, with its lovely harmonies and jazzy songs. And, when a recording of the inauguration was shown, people clapped and cheered after Obama’s best lines, even though most had heard the speech before.

All in all, it was three days of joy, hope and service such as Chico has rarely seen.