A community celebration in Santa Monica will honor the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Inspirational readings, prayer and music will comprise the multiethnic, interfaith celebration commemorating the birthday of the slain civil rights leader.

The community celebration of Martin Luther King Day is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, January 17th, at the First United Methodist Church, 1008 11th St., Santa Monica. Admission is free.

Paul F. Cummins, longtime Santa Monica educator and executive director of the New Visions Foundation, will be the keynote speaker at the celebration.

Now in its 20th year, the free event draws approximately 1,000 people of all backgrounds, according to Santa Monica College. The Martin Luther King Day event is coordinated by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Westside Coalition, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote a strong and enduring legacy for King and the Civil Rights Movement. The gathering is co-sponsored by Santa Monica College (SMC), the City of Santa Monica and the SMC Associates.

“The primary mission of the celebration is to educate, inspire community participation and promote healing,” says Clyde Smith, Martin Luther King, Jr. Westside Coalition chair. “Instead of just a day away from work, we fashion something akin to a service and share the camaraderie of a larger dream.”

Inspirational readings will include King’s words as well as the words of other social justice leaders, according to Smith.

The Santa Monica College Emeritus Choir and the John Adams Middle School Choir will perform, and the Rev. William H. Knight will sing at the event.

The celebration will also include presentation of two $500 scholarships. Santa Monica and Westside Los Angeles high school students were invited to write an essay about the ideals of King, and the two winning students will receive educational scholarships.

A Community Involvement Fair with refreshments and information on various community organizations follows the program.

Smith says that some of the ’60s hippies who come to the event often wear flowers and buttons that say, “Give peace a chance.”

“There’s so much of the ’60s vibe of a Town Hall meeting where we plea with our own inner self to commit to ideals of peace, release grudges and work toward reconciliation,” he adds.

King was born on January 15th, 1929. A pastor, civil rights leader and winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, he spent his life working towards ideals of love, racial equality and nonviolence. Through his speeches, he shared his belief that social change could be accomplished through unity and peaceful protest. He spoke of his dream, rooted in the American dream, where all people were treated with respect and equality.

King was assassinated in 1968 by James Earl Ray, but King’s legacy continues to inspire people to action.

In keeping with King’s mission, Smith says keynote speakers chosen for the celebration show heroism in protecting the legacy of equal rights and nonviolence. Throughout the years, national figures and ministers have spoken, including King’s daughter, Bernice King.

This year’s keynote speaker, Cummins, is best known as co-founder and headmaster at Crossroads School in Santa Monica.

Crossroads is a private college preparatory school with a heavy emphasis on the arts in its curriculum. Cummins co-founded the school in 1971.

He is also the founder of the New Visions Foundation and PS Arts.The New Visions Foundation was started in 1995 with a goal to launch inclusive schools and programs that would provide a more equitable access to educational excellence for diverse children of primary and secondary school age.

The inauguration of New Roads School in Santa Monica resulted from the foundation’s efforts. In addition, New Visions has instituted an after-school program at Camp Gonzales, a probationary incarceration school, to redirect and relocate juvenile students.

Cummins is also the creator of CEO (Center for Educational Opportunity), which places foster children in independent schools; and the founder of Families Helping Families, which redirects low-income families into life-changing new directions.

Each year the program takes on a theme based on current social and political happenings.

The theme for this year’s celebration — “State of the Union: A Time for Love, Not Hate; for Understanding, Not Anger; for Peace, Not War” — came about as the organizing committee for the event realized the celebration would be near the presidential inauguration. At that time the committee wondered who would be leading the country and what the state of the union would be, according to Smith.

Smith says the committee also discussed what ideals America needs to embrace now.

“If America sat at a dinner table, what would our agenda be?” Smith asks. “How much would we, as a nation, spend on health care, education, and programs for seniors and children? How did war get on the agenda at all?”

Smith says King would have challenged the nation’s leaders about war. He says King was a moral rudder for America and that he would have spoken out about allowing the agenda that should socially benefit America to be derailed by war.

He adds that after 9/11/01 it was a time for understanding and that King believed in reconciliation and would have worked for peace.

“What table of reason did we sit down to together and say, is this the only way we have to relate to each other?” Smith asks.

In questioning how we can regain our focus as a nation, Smith says it’s important to try to “recoup the feeling Martin would have had and remember his belief that every person has a right to equality.”

In the face of the world’s challenges, Smith says the event is “one thing we can do on one day, and we can commemorate in the abstract someone who didn’t just fold his hands together and say ‘I feel hopeless.’ Each year we try to begin again and dream anew and celebrate the man who was a prototype dreamer.”

Information: (310) 434-4003.

Julie Kirst can be reached at: jkmailtalk@yahoo.com