D.C.'s King Parade Moved to April 1

The Ballou High School band plays in the 2004 King parade. A committee moved the event to April, the month Martin Luther King Jr. was slain.
The Ballou High School band plays in the 2004 King parade. A committee moved the event to April, the month Martin Luther King Jr. was slain. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

A committee appointed by D.C. Council member Marion Barry has moved the District's annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade from its traditional date near King's birthday in wintry January to the warmer month of April, when the civil rights leader was assassinated.

This year, according to Barry's office, the parade will be held April 1 -- April Fool's Day.

Reaction to the change has been fast and, mostly, furious. Wanda Lockridge, chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, called it "insulting to all King contributed." Denise Rolark Barnes, daughter of parade founder Calvin Rolark, called it a "bad idea" that undermines a beloved tradition. And Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell, who is scheduled to serve as the parade's master of ceremonies, called it "inappropriate at best and, at worst, ridiculous."

Aside from the disrespectful symbolism of remembering King on April Fool's Day, Pannell said, it makes no sense to hold a parade that marks King's murder.

"If you want to commemorate an assassination, that should be something that is done with some solemnity," Pannell said. "You don't commemorate a person's assassination with marching bands."

Neither Barry (D-Ward 8) nor his spokeswoman, Linda Greene, responded to messages late yesterday. Several Ward 8 activists said Barry's office told them the decision was made by a committee Barry appointed to plan the parade, which has been hosted by the Ward 8 council member since its founding in 1979 by Rolark and his wife, then-council member Wilhelmina Rolark.

Chuck Bowens, a member of the parade committee, said the group voted unanimously last month to postpone the parade because the members were worried about subjecting children and "senior VIPs" such as Wilhelmina Rolark and Barry himself to January's often frigid weather. Last year, days after Barry was hospitalized for flulike symptoms, the parade was canceled at the last minute because of plunging temperatures.

At a meeting just before Christmas, Bowens said, the parade committee began discussing last year's cancellation and "started talking about, 'What's the rain date?' And someone said, 'What about the date of King's death? That's in warm weather.' And it was kind of like a veil being lifted, and the whole discussion turned toward that."

When Barry walked into the meeting a few minutes later, the former mayor "didn't exactly jump into the pool with both feet," Bowens said. "But as he listened to our exchange and our reasoning, I think the bulb went on in his head as well. And he said, 'You know, it's not a bad idea.' "

Bowens said the committee did not choose a firm date but discussed April 1 without realizing that it was April Fool's Day. Greene later notified some Ward 8 activists that the parade would be April 1.

Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer, says the change upends a quarter-century-old tradition. The parade was founded to promote what was at the time a national effort to persuade Congress to designate King's birthday, Jan. 15, as a national holiday. The first official holiday was celebrated in 1986.

Today, dozens of cities honor King's birth with marches, concerts, peace projects and even fashion shows. But in 1979, the District was among the first, Barnes said, and the King parade became the biggest citywide celebration staged east of the Anacostia River.

Except for an ice storm one year, "that parade was never canceled. I don't care what the weather was like," Barnes said. "They held that parade, and people came."

Barnes said she would ask Barry to reconsider the date change. But Bowens said support is strong for moving the parade to April.

"We're expanding the celebration beyond his birth to another time in his life that is significant to all of us," Bowens said. "I don't see where that violates the spirit of the man's memory."

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