Saturday, Jan. 19, 2008 | At the bottom of the stairs inside the glass doors of the Mt. Erie Christian Academy on South 47th Street, a laminated picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. hangs on a brown bulletin board, the picture surrounded by red construction paper hearts.

In an office at the top of the stairs sits the school’s headmaster, Robert Matthews, who’s also the chairman for the San Diego 28th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Parade. Matthews sat down with us this week to talk about the parade scheduled for Saturday, which will circle the boundaries of Petco Park in downtown San Diego.

Matthews has been involved in the parade, organized by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, since its inception here. The 77-year-old spoke of the way the region has changed over the years and of the hope he has for the future of San Diego.

So, how has [the parade] changed over the years?

The parade has changed over the years because it has moved from becoming just a neighborhood event to an event which reaches outside of the boundaries of San Diego city and county. … And so we reach all over. Also, in the past, but not recently, we’ve had a band come up from Baja California, from Tijuana. And we’ve gone over to Tijuana and spoke. We had a person speak and say everything in Spanish. So we really reach out.

How many people end up being involved every year?

Well, it varies from year to year, but on the average we have between 2,500 and over 3,000 participants in the parade. … And thousands and thousands will be there watching the parade.

How would you describe what the parade’s like, the parade’s purpose, for someone who’s not been there before?

Well, the mission of the parade is to keep alive the ideals of universal brotherhood that Dr. King espoused so often. And it’s also to develop within our young people a sense of a strong mind of righteousness. And when you look at the background of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he was a very compassionate man. He loved all people. And he stressed non-violence as a means. Which is much like a biblical character who moved about, stressing that love would overcome everything. And we really believe that.

And Dr. King, of course, was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. And that’s why we, as members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, have this parade each year. …

Why is celebrating this day important? A lot of people have the day off of work, and for some people it feels just like a regular three-day holiday weekend.

The importance … is that this parade is a visible example of love for the total community of San Diego. It is the most diversified parade in San Diego. It’s a parade that also accepts everyone who is willing to be associated with the ideals of Dr. King. And furthermore, there are no entry fees. We operate strictly on donation. And sometimes the fraternity makes it financially, and sometimes we don’t. But the parade will go on as long as the Alphas are able to operate.

If Dr. King were to be alive and living in San Diego County, what do you think he would have to say about the way that things are here?

I would think that Dr. King would say that there is hope that all San Diego will eventually embrace universal brotherhood, but we’re not there yet. We’re not there yet, but the day will come when we shall overcome. There’s hope. And he’d say any human being without any hope is lost. And we’re not going to become a lost group, a lost city. Although, our economy is really bad.

You say we’re not there yet. What are the ways in which San Diego has not achieved the things Dr. King spoke about?

Well, our school system is having continual problems in meeting the needs of diversified groups. Our housing pattern has improved, but not everyone is free to move wherever he or she would desire. There’s still covert sentiments of racism in this city. And there’s certain sections of the city that you’ll run into this. And we’re a long ways from being perfect, but we’re on the way.

We’re hopeful — it’s just about like the Chargers. The Chargers started off rocky, but they’re going to end up nicely. And they’re going to beat New England. But it’s not going to be a wild-scoring game. … But that has nothing to do with why you’re here (laughs).

And San Diego is growing. When I came here, in 1955, there were places on Broadway, downtown, that would not serve you if you were a person of color. … Our schools, when I came here, were highly segregated in the ’50s and ’60s. And they began to change in the ’70s. So I’ve lived through the history of San Diego moving from a cow town to an urban area. And we’re still a cow town in many aspects. … But there’s more enlightenment (now). It’s lasting enlightenment.

What about the situation in San Diego that we’re in, being on the border? You mentioned that there’s been some outreach in Tijuana. What do you think are some of the issues we face as a region that are maybe some of those things Dr. King was trying to address, because of that proximity to another country, another culture — all of those things?

Well, when we look at the border situation, we’re not going to be able, in my opinion, to control, 100 percent, the flow of traffic from countries outside the United States. But what we must do is learn to live together as human beings. And we must have compassion for all types of people. And we must begin to praise diversity rather than saying everyone has to be exactly like me.

If everyone was exactly like me, this would be one hell of a world, in my opinion. Because I’m dogmatic, I know exactly what I want to do, and I’m going to do it.

You need some peacemakers out there, too.

Yeah. Well, I see myself as a freedom-fighter. And this was instilled in me through the events of the ’50s and ’60s primarily — my most formative years. I was young, then. I’m an old man now, but I’ve lived through it. And I have seen tremendous changes.

Where were you before you lived in San Diego?

I was born and reared in Kansas. And I lived in Louisiana, I lived in New York. I started teaching school in 1952 in Kansas City, Mo. I went to school at Emporia State University (B.Sc. in elementary education) in Emporia, Kan. … I went to New York, to Columbia University and got my M.A. (curriculum and teaching) there. I left Columbia and started working on my Ph.D. at Temple University in Philadelphia. … My Ph.D. is in human behavior and leadership.

So this helps you corral a parade to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.

It really doesn’t help me corral the parade. What helps me is the drive within the self. Wanting to, as you say, be a peacemaker. And the parade is an excellent vehicle for peacemaking.

Have you encountered anyone over the years as you’ve been organizing the parade for whom this is their first experience thinking about these issues? That the parade has actually been what has got them thinking more openly about equality?

I think I have. It’d be hard to describe, but I’ve even had people call and bless me for being a communist. They say, you know, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a communist and so forth. Which, of course, he wasn’t. And I knew right away that it was someone from a hate group or a group that was trying to stir up trouble. … That doesn’t happen frequently; it’s infrequent.

San Diego is really becoming a laid-back community. And of course, we are so well-liked and so many different groups of people are coming into this city, we have to be more open-minded towards people who are different than we are.

You know, whites have to learn something about the culture of African-Americans. African-Americans, of course, have to learn to be accepting of Middle Easterners, accepting of Latinos, or what have you. We have to begin to think in terms of we’re all children of God.

And that’s one of the reasons why you’ll find me working in a school like this. This is a small, religious school. I actually retired in 1992. I draw a state pension. But I’m working here because it keeps me alive, it keeps me alert. And as far as age is concerned, I’m closer to 80 than I am to 70. I’m 77. That’s why I’ve seen so much history.

I was a president in the community college district. I was president of ECC (Educational Cultural Complex) just down the street here. I was president of all of the continuing education centers in the city of San Diego. At the time I retired I had over 90,000 students in the school.

Looking back on your 77 years, what significance does celebrating this Martin Luther King, Jr., day have in 2008, when some front-running (presidential) candidates are members of underrepresented — traditionally, in politics — populations? You know, a black man, a woman, frontrunners in this race.

The significance of this day can really be said in two words, to all of our children: I can. I can. I can be whatever I want to be if I keep faith with the powers beyond me. I can. I can be whatever I want to be. And that is one of the unique things of being anywhere in the United States. Fifty years ago, you couldn’t say that without [boundaries]. But today, we’ve moved to where you can be whatever you want to be if you keep the faith and you work toward the goal.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT

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