By April Short
This year the Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation in Santa Cruz honored a person who dedicated his life to making sure that the struggle for civil rights is not over: Tony Hill.
A local activist and event organizer, Hill passed away in August at the age of 62. His legacy as an advocate in race relations, diversity issues and economic development continues by way of the convocation. In addition to being honored this year, Hill was the leading force behind organizing this annual event in years past.
“Tony lived to bring people together and find a common ground,” said Catherine Faris, assistant vice chancellor with the University Relations office. “He just had a way of lowering the barriers and of seeing the humanity in all of us. I saw him, in a quiet warm way, bring people with very different views together.” Faris herself has worked with the convocation for the span of its 24-year existence.
Sandy Lydon is a local historian who worked with Hill for over 25 years.
“As he constantly reminded me over the years, [the struggle] ain’t over and it will never be over,” Lydon said. “He believed that race was the elephant in every room at every moment in the United States.”
In addition to the Martin Luther King Convocation, Hill worked on numerous projects that dealt with race and diversity issues. In the 1990s Hill and Lydon worked together leading diversity workshops on affirmative action on several community college campuses. Hill also produced a number of television programs and books that dealt with diversity and race issues, notably a television piece on the history of African-Americans in the Monterey Bay region. He recently worked on a television piece focusing on the Japanese abalone divers of Monterey Bay.
In commemoration of a lifetime of work, a plan is underway to launch an honor that will be given annually to an individual in the community whose life and work closely honor the principles Hill brought into his own life and work. The honor was declared at the Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation yesterday, and the first recipient of the award will be announced next year.
“The very fact that the event is alive and healthy is a testimony to Tony’s continual assistance over the years,” Lydon said.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation began under the leadership of Chancellor Robert L. Sinsheimer.
“He thought it would be a really good idea to commemorate King’s vision, and his words, and his actions, by bringing important speakers who reflect his thoughts to campus, and involving the community,” Faris said.
The event has been thoroughly supported by every chancellor following Sinsheimer. The Office of the Chancellor supplies funding for the Convocation, and costs vary from year to year depending largely upon who is speaking at the event.
“It’s one of the few events that brings a lot of different communities of people together,” Faris said. “There are moments each year where I am sitting there, listening to the speaker, thinking, ‘This is what life is about, this is what we are here for.’”
Local groups, particularly Inner Light Ministries, the City of Santa Cruz, local radio, and the Santa Cruz Sentinel offer yearly contributions to the event. Support is also provided by way of outright gifts-in-kind, like complimentary venue rental from the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Total costs for the event tend to run between $10,000 and $20,000.
Each year, a committee meets roughly eight to 10 times to decide upon the event’s organization and choose a speaker. This year the committee happily anticipated a visit from Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“Having Chairman Bond is truly an honor and the NAACP is extremely excited about his visit,” said Paula Livers-Powell, president of the local branch of the NAACP and a convocation committee member for 19 years.
Bond gave a speech entitled “Civil Rights: Then and Now.” The message the convocation’s committee hoped to get across this year was that civil rights and the fight against racial discrimination are an ongoing process, equally valid in today’s society as during Dr. Martin Luther King’s life. Tony Hill was proof of that.
“[The fight] isn’t over and never will be,” Lydon said. “Racial discrimination continues to be one of the primary undercurrents in America today, perhaps most blatantly obvious in the anti-immigration debates. I’m hoping that, in Tony’s memory, it is even more joyous and profound than previously.”