Michael Jefferson watched the parade in Anacostia yesterday commemorating the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and wished that the slain black leader were still alive to help poor people.
"If King was alive now, things wouldn't be like they are now; no jobs for the black or the white," said Jefferson, 22, of U Street SE, as the Ballou High School Marching Band boomed past him on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. "We ain't free yet," said Jefferson, who was laid off recently from a job downtown. "We ain't got no jobs."
Jefferson was not alone in his feelings. In programs throughout the city, speakers noted some of the same frustration. But in Anacostia, King's 54th birthday anniversary was also a celebration marked by community togetherness and pride, attracting more than 15,000 onlookers and participants, parade organizers said. City police estimated that more than 10,000 persons lined the parade route along King Avenue.
Others who attended commemorative ceremonies also said that King's dream of equal opportunity seems remote.
"One of the lessons of today is that we've got to stay together if we're to survive in the cruel era of Reaganomics," said City Council member Wilhelmina Rolark, (D-Ward 8), after the parade as she addressed about 1,000 parade participants crowded into the Covenant Baptist Church on South Capitol Street SW.
Throughout the Washington area, King's birthday was celebrated in a variety of ways. Singer Stevie Wonder lobbied congressmen to seek support in making King's birthday a national holiday. Comedian Richard Pryor, in an unfamiliarly serious mood, rendered an emotional speech in support of King's ideals during a program at the Department of Agriculture. On the Mall, an oak tree was planted in memory of the civil rights leader.
About 1,300 people jammed the first floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library at Ninth and G streets NW for the city's main official observance of King's birthday. Mayor Marion Barry, City Council Chairman David A. Clarke and School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie spoke.
But the show was stolen by the youngest speaker, 12-year-old Dexter Nutall, a student at the Annunciation Catholic School, who received a standing ovation with a speech and a solo rendition of "The Greatest Love of All."
"It just makes you remember what kind of evil it took to kill this man," said Rowena Lawrence, a 32-year-old secretary. "But it felt like he was here with us today. It really felt good."
At the Agriculture Department rally, Pryor, visibly overcome with emotion, said: "I know in my heart I wouldn't be here today" were it not for King and others in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Though King's birthday is today, the District, Maryland and the city of Alexandria celebrated the holiday yesterday, closing state, county and city government offices and public schools in those jurisdictions.
North Carolina yesterday became the 18th state to make King's birthday an official holiday, and in Richmond, a state senator sponsored a bill in the General Assembly to seek state recognition of King's birthday. But legislation to make it a national holiday has failed in every session of Congress since King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) are expected to introduce a new King holiday bill later this month.
But the marchers in Southeast yesterday did not let the lack of congressional support for a national holiday for King spoil their own birthday party.
From the parking lot of the old Curtis Brothers' furniture store at 2041 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, the parade snaked two miles up the avenue to South Capitol Street, then to the Covenant Baptist Church, where the organizers, council member Rolark's Constituent Service Committee, presented a program of speeches and songs.
The draw of the day was Stevie Wonder, who joined Barry in the back of a pickup truck as it led the way up the parade route. Wonder took the microphone at the reviewing stand on the steps of the church and gave a short address, but it was inaudible to all but those nearest him because of the noise from the crowd. Aides then led the singer away, and, to the disappointment of many of the paraders, he then left.
Last night about 300 people, black and white, attended a musical tribute to King at the Metropolitan AME Church at 1518 M St. NW, where they heard, among others, the Majestic Choral Ensemble and the Metropolitan Police Choir.
But like the ceremony at the library, the youngest singers won a standing ovation as, a cappella, the Children's Choir sang: "Before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave, and I'll fight for my right to be free."