The words were knitted into the men’s black and gold ski hats as they gathered in Anacostia Monday, waiting to join the floats, dancers, and marchers in the Martin Luther King, Jr. peace walk and parade.
It was a fitting slogan for a 21-degree day whose windchill made it feel like 4 degrees. But the phrase, coined by founders of the 113-year-old Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity (which counts King as a member), meant much more.
“We’ll fight till hell freezes over, and then we’ll fight on ice,” said Keithlyn Warner, 55, vice president of one of the District’s three chapters and a regular parade participant. “We use ice as a metaphor for the things that ail our communities that we have to break through — economic, social, educational. We just adopted it and adapted it into our activism.”
Activism was on the minds of many who braved the cold for the 13th annual parade along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Participants included D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), members of the D.C. Council, the Ballou High School marching band, and cheerleader groups and nonprofit organizations.
Some jammed inside the storefront of Check It, a social enterprise organization. They wrapped their hands around cups of hot cocoa and tea, or dipped into a box of hand- and foot-warmers. Young cheerleaders with sparkly headgear and thin coats got a pep talk from an adult: another cheer group was out there dancing, “So you can do it too.”
While elements of King’s dream had been accomplished, participants said, much remained to be done.
Eric Weaver, 49, hoped to raise awareness about the violence plaguing the streets a half-century after King’s assassination. “Everything he stood for was to be peaceful,” said Weaver, who spent 22 years in prison and is founder and chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens. “There has been some progress, but in terms of unity, I think he’d be disappointed. We don’t come together as we should.”
It was Ray Martin’s first time at the parade. After retiring from a career in international development, the 78-year-old McLean resident had turned to helping his own country fight poverty. He was there with the nonprofit Poor People’s Campaign.
“Me as an American, as a Christian, I feel like we have to be giving a lot more attention to the economic disparities in this country, and one of the things I can do for this is to show up, be present,” he said.
Noting that King had turned his attention to poverty before he died, Martin said, “The issues he was addressing were the issues that humankind has grappled with for millennia. ... All of us, white and black, we have to speak out and demonstrate by our words and our actions that we’re not going to let our country slip back to the ugliness of the past - and I’m willing to freeze my ears and fingers for that.”
The parade was smaller than usual, with some participants canceling because of the frigid temperatures. But turnout was “a good amount for the amount of cold,” said Ron Moten, program director at Check It. He stood atop a float as the band Sugarbear E.U. played, even as their trumpet and trombone froze.
Elsewhere around the region, other events celebrated the holiday. At the Bethesda North Marriott, music pulsed and volunteers gathered around tables piled high with toothbrushes and socks for the homeless. Lines snaked through a ballroom as people waited to pack food for those in need or snip fleece into warm blankets for a hospice program.
Judy Taylor, 61, of Silver Spring, recalled attending segregated schools in southern Virginia and, as a teenager, signing petitions to make King’s birthday a federal holiday.
She said she had taken a day off every year to volunteer in honor of King — even before the holiday was established in 1983.
“A whole lot of folks gave a whole lot so I could be here,” she said. “If you forget where you came from, you go back.”
Carolyn Chung and Kris Poedjosoedarmo, of Rockville, crouched on the floor around the beginnings of an orange and blue fleece blanket with their 8-year-old son, Jay.
It was their first time volunteering as a family, Chung said — and it was rewarding, even if the crush of people was somewhat claustrophobia-inducing.
“We wanted to show Jay what it means to give something, whether it’s time or money or both,” Poedjosoedarmo said.
Chanelle Houston, of Silver Spring, was filling boxes of food for Manna Food Center, a food bank in Montgomery County. “We live in a very affluent, well-off county in Maryland, but there are a lot of neighbors in need still,” she said. “Martin Luther King stood for service and leadership and always doing for others.”
Back in Anacostia, the Alpha Phi Alpha men talked about their work promoting health care, voters’ rights, and education. Warner said he thought King would have mixed emotions if he could see America now.
“We’ve made a lot of strides ... but I think he’d be disappointed in what’s going on today. Like the shutdown — I think it trickles down into African-American communities harder than other communities.”
Outside, a group of go-go dancers in black unitards and jazz shoes shimmied by, sockless. “They’ve got to be freezing,” Warner said. “I’m just looking at the weather outside and what they’ve got on, that’s all I’m saying.”
Christopher Drayton, 56, the chapter’s president, laughed. “Our brother Martin Luther King should have been born in April, or something like that.”