The Freedom Train will likely run again next year on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day after last-minute ticket sales for the commemorative ride from San Jose and San Francisco skyrocketed.
Some 1,031 riders took the chartered Caltrain ride by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Santa Clara Valley for nearly 30-year tradition this morning.
“It was more diverse than we’ve ever seen it,” organizer and association president Kathleen Flynn said.
She said residents of all backgrounds and from all parts of the Bay Area and beyond took the ride that included gospel singers, U.S. Marshals members speaking about the history of the civil rights movement, and local dignitaries including San Jose City Councilman Ash Kalra talking about civil rights.
“If everyone continues to step up, we’ll keep running the train,” she said.
The ride between the two Bay Area cities is about the same distance as the 54 miles between Selma and Montgomery, Ala., which King and other civil rights activists marched in March 1965.
The association foots the $5,000 bill to charter the train, and this year decided to modify the ride with passengers only getting on in San Jose. The train then went directly into San Francisco to meet up with a march that headed to an MLK celebration at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Gardens.
Any surplus from ticket sales goes to the group’s scholarship fund, Flynn said.
She said next year the train would again run without stopping. In past years the train has picked up riders in Sunnyvale, Palo Alto and San Mateo.
As the number of participants dwindles—Flynn said there used to be as many as 1,600 riders, and only 1,200 participated last year—the future of the ride is threatened.
At the end of last week only about 300 tickets had been purchased, prompting Flynn to put out an urgent call for more ticket sales.
She said participants today came from as far as Sacramento, Los Angeles, Hollister and the East Bay.
Berkeley resident Andrea Scruggs, 42, took her first Freedom Train ride this morning.
She said she was intrigued by the stories the U.S. Marshals told on the train and was happy she had decided to join her neighbor to go on the ride.
“I’ve always wanted to do it,” she said. She usually spends the day off at home with family.
She said although many people ultimately ended up riding the train, she was worried about the future of the Freedom Train.
“We’ve got to try to keep the train going,” she said.
Jamil Shaikh, a Mountain View resident and member of the city’s human relations commission, took the train to the festivities in San Francisco as he has in past years.
“We’re taking it for granted,” he said about the train and encouraged others to join the ride.
He said the best part about taking the train and being part of the MLK celebrations with his partner is “we were able to meet so many people.”
He said some highlights of the train ride included hearing San Jose city council members speak along with the San Jose police chief.
When the train reached San Francisco, the riders joined others for a roughly 1.5-mile walk to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for an annual festival hosted by the Northern California Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Foundation.
On their way to the festival, the marchers crossed the Lefty O’Doul Bridge near AT&T Park to commemorate the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a march King led with other civil rights advocates in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
The march continued down Third Street where Rochelle Woods was walking as part of a contingent with Jack and Jill of America’s San Jose chapter.
A Campbell resident, Woods said she joined the African-American family association so that her 10-year-old son would be part of the local African-American community.
There were about 100 members from different Bay Area chapters participating in today’s march, she said.
She said today’s march was “a good experience from my son” who lives in a part of the Bay Area were there aren’t that many fellow African-American boys.
On their way up on Caltrain from the San Jose area, the family group sang songs and played MLK and civil rights trivia with the dozens of children, including some as young 3 years old, who had joined their parents, Woods said.
Fellow marcher Cyndy Simms, 63, came up from San Mateo to join her daughter who is part of AmeriCorps.
Simms was holding a sign with a King quote about education.
She said today was “very much a celebration” and she was “pleased how peaceful” the march was.
The procession of more than 1,000 ended at Yerba Buena Gardens for a noon interfaith ceremony led by the San Francisco Interfaith Council.
At the ceremony, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, addressed the crowd on the sunny Yerba Buena lawn.
She reflected on King’s legacy and the power he had to bring people together.
“The legacy that he left us we must fight for,” she said.
She said in the spirit of King, residents must keep up the fight for affordable healthcare, voting rights, unemployment benefits, a higher minimum wage and other social injustices.
“We have a lot of work to do what (King) laid out for us,” she said.
After the crowd sang verses from the protest song “We Shall Overcome,” San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu also spoke on the lasting impact of King and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“His movement has shaped us as a city,” Chiu said.
He credited King for making San Francisco a beacon of tolerance and acceptance for all types of people.
“San Francisco stands up for the values of (King),” he said.
Like Pelosi, he said, “there’s still a lot of work we have to do.”
He mentioned disproportionate rates of suspensions for black children within the city’s school district, and the struggle for homeowners and tenants to keep their homes amid rampant evictions and foreclosures.
He called for residents to “rededicate ourselves to (King’s) work, our work.”
Supervisors London Breed, Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen and Eric Mar also attended the ceremony.
The free festival at Yerba Buena continued with activities, performances, speakers and children’s events until 5 p.m.
Sasha Lekach, Bay City News