How I Spent My MLK Jr. Day

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I celebrated my first week working for Caltrain aboard a train that literally had “celebration” in the title. I can assure you that Caltrain did not send out a locomotive and queue of train cars just for the oh-so-fresh-on-the-job public affairs specialist to bask in a one-week anniversary.

No, I was there for the NorCalMLK Celebration Train, an uplifting event that celebrates the legacy and birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all while traveling up the Peninsula. Participants ride the rails north aboard a specially chartered train from the San Jose Diridon Station up to San Francisco. The ride to and from is free, and when passengers disembark at the corner of Fourth and King streets, they can take part in some of the many nearby events put on by the Northern California Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Foundation, which partners with Caltrain to put on the Celebration Train annually.

Bay Area residents may be unaware that the Celebration Train (formerly known as the Freedom Train) has run on the third Monday of January continuously for more than two decades. This was my first time participating, and the event far exceeded my expectations both in terms of enjoyment and how thought provoking it was. I’ve ridden Caltrain from my home base in San Jose up to The City many times, but no prior trip was this quick, both figuratively and literally. We made two brief stops in Palo Alto and San Mateo to pick up more Celebration Train participants, before continuing on our roughly 70-minute journey. The ride seemed to fly by because there was just so much going on aboard our eight-car Gallery train.

Beginning from the back of the train, and working its way through the cars to the front, was the New Life Fellowship Praise Team, led by Caltrain employee Tomisha Young. The team’s harmonious singing delighted passengers and further brightened the mood in every car they passed through. I joined my Caltrain colleagues in the front of the train where we worked our way through the cars putting on a roving Black History Trivia game, with most questions centering on the life of Dr. King. Would you believe he was accepted into Morehouse College at age 15? Well, one little girl knew the answer and she was rewarded for paying attention in class as she earned a Caltrain pen from yours truly. I was impressed by how many people knew the intricate details of King’s life, like the names of all four of his children (Yolanda, Martin, Dexter and Bernice, by the way if you’re ever stumped on Jeopardy!).

I was reminded from a passenger that Monday would have been King’s 89th  birthday, and was both saddened and inspired when I realized just how much he accomplished and just how much of a legacy he left behind at the young age of 39. I can only imagine what he could have done had he lived longer and not been gunned down outside the Lorraine Motel nearly 50 years ago. When I wasn’t assisting riders or distributing Caltrain swag during trivia, I was on the hunt for fodder for this very blog. I chatted with a few of the 925 passengers and was struck by the sheer diversity on board. Literally every age, race, nationality and religion had taken a seat.

Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement came well before I was born, so I can only guess what Dr. King would have thought of such a diverse collection of people enjoying each other’s company. I’d bet he’d be both impressed and satisfied. I spoke briefly with one woman who brought her youngsters aboard the Celebration Train for the third straight year in part because they have a fascination with trains, and because she felt it would be a good way to instill Dr. King’s messages in them at an early age. I also met Carolyn Downing of San Jose, a repeat participant who had high praise for the convenience of the Caltrain station being so near the MLK events. “The legacy of Dr. King means a lot to me and a lot of other people because he was for peace and love, and for equal rights,” she told me. I also had a nice chat with Amina and Brittney, both with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

They were traveling with volunteers and staff, and both felt that riding with a large group to the events helped strengthen the meaning of the day, which they said ties in with an unsettling rise of Islamophobia. “By riding the train together it makes the event accessible to everyone from all across the Bay Area and brings in people from all different backgrounds and puts them in the same space to march and honor Dr. King,” Brittney said. “I think there’s always strength in numbers. Coming together and showing solidarity, especially with the diversity that this train brings, that speaks volumes especially in the Bay Area,” Amina added. “I think the legacy that Dr. King left behind set a precedent for one that we aspire to today, and a lot of the work he had done is something that what we try to hold a candle up to and model.”

Even though my shift ended when we disembarked in San Francisco, I still thought quite a bit about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement when I took the return train ride home to San Jose in solitude. I concede that MLK Day for the last few years has been mostly just a holiday for me that was spent either catching up on work, or doing something mindless. It had been a long time, perhaps even a couple decades, since I really sat and thought about Dr. King and his message. The Celebration Train, and all the enthusiastic attendees, helped remind me that his legacy still inspires and resonates more than ever in 2018.