The Dream Goes on the March

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

The scene yesterday looked like a typical parade: glad-handing politicians, waving beauty queens and pompom-carrying cheerleaders.

But one cheerleading group was from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. And, along the parade route, at Campbell African Methodist Episcopal Church, a chalkboard read, "Dr. King Lives On In Ward 8."

Revelry mixed with reflection yesterday as hundreds of people lined Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast Washington for the 29th annual parade to remember the street's namesake.

Forty years ago, King's assassination sparked riots that resulted in 13 deaths and the destruction of some of the city's corridors. The unrest also touched Nichols Avenue, which was renamed in honor of the civil rights leader in 1971.

"Martin Luther King. He represents our school," said 8-year-old Kimbra Price, dressed in her red and white cheerleading uniform.

The parade got off to a slow start, and for a while it looked as if it might even be a bust. Small clusters of people sat on milk crates, in lawn chairs and on the curb awaiting a procession that would seemingly never start proceeding. But then the thump of marching bands was heard in the distance, and people emerged from their homes on side streets and filled the sidewalks.

"On the 40th anniversary of his death, I don't think there could be a better crowd," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said as he threw out green Mardi Gras-style beads.

The mayor stopped to pose with people who wanted the memory saved on their cellphones and cameras. "People are having a great time celebrating everything Martin Luther King meant to this country," Fenty said.

Erica "Diamond" Smith, 30, wearing a superhero costume, said she was "Wonder Woman" as she skated down the street with the Anacostia Rollers and Friends.

She said she generally wears the costume in parades but thought it took on special meaning yesterday with its stars and stripes. "This is a show for freedom, everything that he was about," she said as the Sounds of Blackness ensemble blared from speakers, "You can win as long as you keep your head to the sky. Be optimistic." But with celebration came a reality that King's dream and the American dream have not touched everyone.

As D.C. Council candidate Michael A. Brown shook hands with a group of young men, several asked how they could get jobs. Brown, son of the late Ronald Brown, former U.S. secretary of commerce, told them to call the number on his campaign flier and they could possibly get paid for working on his campaign.

"I'm looking out here on the street at all these young men. I bet three out of the five are unemployed," said former Ward 1 Council member Frank Smith. "We, as the black community, or America as a whole, need to do something."

Smith, founder of the African American Civil War Memorial Museum, wore a Union-blue uniform as men and women also in period dress marched with him.

He watched parts of the city burn in 1968 and is trying to find a way to merge the histories of the avenue and U Street NW, where the museum is housed. U Street, which was at the center of the riots, is now bustling with restaurants and shops, still home to one of the city's most famous black-owned businesses, Ben's Chili Bowl. He said he wants that kind of prosperity to reach MLK Avenue.

There is hope for the young men, he said. "The Obama campaign is bringing new life," he said. "They are getting involved and registering to vote."

The presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) seemed to be on many minds at the parade. Obama beat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) by a margin of 3 to 1 in February's Democratic primary in the District, and many of yesterday's marchers wore buttons and stickers promoting him.

"Give me an Obama!" a supporter shouted.

"Obama," Tyshoun Barber, 8, said softly, raising one fist and gripping green beads in the other.

Farther south on MLK, Geraldine Law snapped photos of Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was atop a horse and wearing a black cowboy hat -- a tradition for the former mayor.

Law, the 74-year-old founder and director of a day-care center, said she moved to the District from Sewickley, Pa., in 1957. "When I was in high school, I was in the marching band . . . with whites," she said. "Everybody wasn't segregated."

She said she brought her "grandbaby" to the parade to share history. Three-year-old Jalen Reid spelled his name without pause or taking a breath, "J-A-L-E-N-R-E-I-D."

When asked what the parade was about, he said, "Martin Luther King."

And who was he? "A boy."

"What else did we learn in school?" Law bent down to ask him. "Are we celebrating his birthday or his death?"

Jalen looked out at Barry and others who were on horses -- the showstopper that ended the three-hour parade. He was too enthralled to talk.

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