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43 Years of MLK Tributes

Keep Alive the Dream documentary ready for debut

Retired Portland educator and World Arts Foundation co-founder Ken Berry at the controls of video editing equipment used to produce Keep Alive the Dream, a new historic film documenting 43 years of annual MLK tributes and showcasing the lives of African Americans in Oregon.

To say that the World Arts Foundation’s new documentary, “Keep Alive the Dream,” is a labor of love, is an understatement. The film is a work of passion. Passion for the past and passion for the future, to keep the teachings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King alive now and for future generations.

The documentary, to premier on this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, highlights great moments from the more than 40 years of community celebrations the World Arts Foundation has held annually to commemorate the late civil rights leader’s birthday.

Berry, in an interview with the Portland Observer, described the importance of celebrating King’s civil rights legacy over the years, from the first World Arts Foundation event in 1978 to today, bringing the community together annually with other educators, speakers and performing artists.

“This was our outlet to understand what it means to be Black in the state of Oregon. This was before there was federal holiday to honor Dr. King. But we couldn’t wait. We needed our children to understand the world they were about to inherit,” Berry said.

Every minute of each MLK celebration over the years was recorded, but in many different formats, Berry said. Now, after many months of hard work, those recordings have been condensed into a one-hour documentary in digital form. It is an amazing accomplishment that provides glimpses into many past celebrations along with many historic photos and videos.

The documentary’s first showing will be at 3 p.m., Monday, Jan. 17 at the Hollywood Theater, 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd. Admission is free but tickets should be reserved at

At 6 p.m. the same day, Berry said, Open Signal Cable will showcase interviews to build around the film, and at 8 p.m. the documentary will be shown on Oregon Public Broadcasting, Channel 10. The film will eventually be available on the Internet, he added.

Condensing the years and hours of celebrations was due to the editing by award-winning filmmaker Elijah Hasan, Berry said, and digitizing everything from 16mm film to three-quarter-inch videotape recordings was spearheaded and overseen by archivist Bobby Smith.

“He’s the one that came to my house and he’s the one that made me say, ‘Okay,’” Berry said describing the moment he agreed to join in to make the documentary.

“I knew where everything was, and although I had moved six or seven times, I always kept all these materials in a cool place, thank goodness. Because otherwise, they would have been dissolved. They’re a little bit scratchy here and there, and we still have more to do.”

The result gives a fabulous look at the MLK celebrations over time. Watching the local performances and speakers from years past, brings the joy and love of each year’s celebration to life.

“Keep Alive the Dream,” opens with orator Herb Cawthorne delivering a portion of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, while historic photographs are shown in the background.

Other highlights show a panel discussion from 1989 which included Dr. Joy DeGruy who talked about “planting a seed” for the future, and the late Harold Williams who said, “Every parent wonders what the future will hold for their children, and it is our responsibility to see they have dreams.”

On the same panel, Ken Berry’s son, Cedric, reminisced about how when he was seven months old, his dad held him on stage while singing “The Greatest Love of All.” The documentary then shows that footage where Cedric is a laughing baby, grabbing at the microphone while his father sings.

Traci Harris-Woods also recalled her experience as a member of the Youth Sound Ensemble, which she said was an “awesome experience,” followed by a video of the choir in 1982, where as a teenager she was lead singer on “Be Grateful.”

“We put together the Youth Sound choir to demonstrate just how important the arts and education are for our youth,” Berry said. “Each year we brought hundreds of children together for a performance, after hundreds of hours of rehearsals.”

Then there’s the late Grace Collins, namesake of the Grace Collins Memorial Center, leading a group of children singing “We Love Thee Lord Jesus,” and performances of the New Hope Baptist Church Choir, the Youth Sounder Choir, the Wilder Ward Singers and the Billy Larken Trio.

Other groups include the Thara Memory Youth Sound Ensemble in 1984 and the Alonzo Chadwick SEI Youth Choir in 2005.

The documentary also features video footage and commentary on the history of Black experience in Portland and the state of Oregon, from the 1859 “exclusionary clause” to keep Blacks from moving here when Oregon became a state, to the Vanport flood in 1948, to the gentrification of Portland neighborhoods in more recent years.

Past interviews with esteemed Black Portlanders are included, like musician and teacher Janis Scroggins when she was a young woman. Scroggins died in 2014, and in 2016 the celebration included a musical tribute to her.

A 2020 video of the Sebe Kan Youth Dancers performing African dances, and the Kappa Alpha Psi Junior Dancers in 2003, are also featured, with dancer Michael Dean talking about what a great experience it was to “step out on that stage and see the whole of Black Portland.”

Another speaker featured is former state Sen. Margaret Carter, Oregon’s first Black woman legislator, who talked about King’s “economic dream.”

“We’ve got to put the fire back under corporations in terms of their negligence of not bringing young people on and giving them job opportunities,” she said. “Sacrifice needs to be made and if they don’t, we need to take to the streets against corporations. And yes, I’m saying get in the streets. That’s where the economic answer lies.”

In footage from 1988, entertainer Art Alexander talked about how for too many Black residents, life was like being “pushed into a nightmare.”

In 2015, another esteemed speaker was Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, famous for his philosophy of nonviolence that led India out of colonialist oppression.

Gandhi said King and his grandfather, who was assassinated in 1948, never met, but after the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycotts, the Indian government in 1959 invited King and his family to visit as its guest to meet with people who were in Gandhi’s circle to learn about his philosophy.

“And he came with the whole family and spent more than a month and learned that nonviolence is not just a strategy of convenience; nonviolence is a way of life,” Gandhi said.

“We have to become nonviolent ourselves. We have to become the change that we wish to see in the world.”

--Beverly Corbell

Keep Alive the Dream archivist Bobby Smith.

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