MLK Day parade in D.C. returns to national holiday

January 16, 2012

Monday’s parade down Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast Washington marked a homecoming of sorts, bringing back a tradition onlookers and participants said they’d missed for years.

For the first time since 2004, the District’s parade honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had groups joyously marching through the city on the same day as the national holiday remembering the civil rights leader. Previous parades had been moved to the spring for better weather or had been canceled, organizers said.

But this year, the celebration made a comeback, with about 300 cheerleaders, musicians and others marching south along a two-mile stretch of the avenue named for the slain leader. Thousands of people, flocking into the city from Silver Spring, Clinton, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore, watched on a chilly winter day filled with sunshine.

At Malcolm X and Martin Luther King avenues — a spot known for crime and violence — people tapped their feet to bands and police officers cracked smiles.

Malaika Kennie, 34, of Southeast, brought her 9-year-old daughter to march with her school group. Kennie said having the parade on the King holiday made it more special.

“You can name a street after him, a monument, but having it on this day is long overdue,” Kennie said. “It makes it more significant so that we will remember what he stood for.”

The parade’s lineup included marching bands from Anacostia and Dunbar high schools, Chinese dragons, and representatives from the Ethio­pian and Ni­ger­ian communities. Junior ROTC units, Girl Scout troops, politicians riding in convertible Corvettes and marchers for social causes joined in. One group carried a sign: “Jobs not Jail.”

D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss surveyed the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus, where groups lined up for the parade and reflected.

“It’s good to see the parade back after all these years,” Strauss said. “It shouldn’t be another holiday for sales. . . . It’s important to keep this as a special day. It is a day that should be about nonviolence, social justice and community service.”

Elford Lawrence of Northwest agreed: “I wanted a way to celebrate Dr. King without buying anything.”

Many local leaders, including Denise Rolark Barnes — publisher of the Washington Informer, whose family helped launch the first parade in the District 34 years ago — and D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), worked together to bring the parade back to the King holiday, according to Kim Harrison, chairman of public relations for the MLK Holiday Parade Committee.

Myron Austin, 31, assistant director of the Baltimore Rockers Marching Band, a non-profit community group, came south with 25 of his drummers and dancers. They were proud to be No. 306 in the parade lineup, strutting along in black, white and turquoise outfits.

“This is about honoring Dr. King’s legacy and what he left for us,” Austin said.

Jimmy Espinoza, 24, of Fairfax came with a dozen of his dancers, who were dressed in vibrant yellow, blue and green to display their traditional Bolivian dances. A veteran of Irish parades and Manhattan events, Espinoza said the District’s MLK parade was unique.

“This is about unifying with people,” he said. “Martin Luther King did a lot not just for African Americans, but for everybody. We wanted to come out and celebrate all the great work he did for freedom.”

For 17-year-old Juwan Downing of Northeast, playing the tuba with the Dunbar High School marching band was a special moment.

“It means a lot for me to be here and do this,” Downing said. “The way Martin Luther King fought for us to go wherever we want. And this being my senior year, it is a nice way to exit.”

For Harrison, who helped organize the parade, having it on the same day as the King holiday held added personal significance. She has participated in parades honoring King for many years.

“Seeing it come back on the same day as we honor him is important because he deserved to have the same traditional parades as others,” Harrison said. “It’s a very special meaning to have it on the holiday.

“We don’t celebrate culture as much as we used to,” she said. “This is a tradition that we need to hold on to.”

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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