The mood was one of optimism and steely determination, as a diverse group of townspeople, civic organizations and faith communities united Monday to take part in Leesburg’s 25th annual march commemorating the life and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Town officials estimated that 1,200 people marched through downtown Leesburg from the courthouse to the Douglass Community Center, some pushing strollers and others carrying flags, banners and signs highlighting excerpts from King’s speeches. Many of the marchers stayed at the community center after the march for a program of speeches, readings and musical performances honoring the vision of the civil rights leader.
It was the largest group ever to assemble for Leesburg’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and program, said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and others who have witnessed the annual event since it was launched 25 years ago. The Loudoun County branch of the NAACP, the Douglass High School alumni association, the Bluemont Concert Series and the Loudoun Baha’i community were the founding partners.
“It’s a great testament to what Leesburg and Loudoun County are all about, and that’s unity,” Umstattd said.
“I think there’s a feeling that, after all the divisiveness that we’ve seen at the national level, we as a community need to come together and unite for the common good,” she said. “That’s why you see people of all backgrounds here.”
Members of African American fraternities, sororities, churches and civic organizations were among the largest groups participating in the march. They were joined by people from an array of faith groups, some of which were affiliated with Loudoun Interfaith BRIDGES, a sponsor of the event. They included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha’is and Unitarian Universalists.
Another sponsor, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, played a prominent role in the march and program afterward. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from the ADAMS Center marched near the front of the procession, carrying flags of the United States and other nations.
“In this day and age, we need to come together under Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community, of a harmonious society that judges people by the content of their character,” said Rizwan Jaka, chairman of the board of the ADAMS Center.
“We believe, as Muslims, that God created nations and tribes so that we may get to know one another, and that is a part of what Dr. King was talking about in that sense: Let us come together, let us get to know one another, let us walk together,” Jaka said.
“We must work to counter bigotry; we must work to counter hate; we must work for upholding civil rights,” he said. “That is something that is so important as we are coming upon the inauguration — that we come together and unite as Americans to continue to uphold religious freedom, women’s rights, human rights, civil rights.”
Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said it was significant that the march ended at the building that originally housed Douglass High School, “which was literally built by the African American community in Loudoun County because they did not have a school for high school kids.” African American students were educated in the building from 1941 until schools were desegregated in 1968.
Randall, the first African American woman to chair a county board of supervisors in Virginia, said in an interview that it’s possible to remain strong while striving to live up to King’s messages of peace and nonviolence.
“We have to be good and kind to one another, but still do what is right,” she said. “You have kindness and you have strength, and you set out and do the right thing.”
When Randall was asked whether she thought the high level of enthusiasm was connected to the upcoming presidential inauguration, she said, “It is a very large crowd today, and that’s a good thing.
“What I see and what I hear most is people saying to the [Trump] administration, ‘We’re going to continue to hold you accountable,’” she said.
“We’re going to fight you when we think we should, and we’ll support you when we think we should. But we will hold you accountable for the decisions that you make, and we will hold you accountable for the decisions that literally can hurt people.
“Where we think the Trump administration is incorrect, we will respectfully and continuously push back,” Randall said.