Garfield Jones stood on his front porch in the frigid air Monday, holding a vinyl record jacket with Martin Luther King Jr.’s face on it and snapping photos of the parade passing by.
As King’s voice resonated through speakers wired up from the basement, Jones, 63, recalled an even colder day more than three decades ago, when there was no parade and he and his friends were fighting for one.
“We froze in the snow,” he said, shuffling through photographs of a 1982 rally at the Capitol. “There were people up in the trees. . . . We took off work, we took off school, we marched and made it a holiday. That’s why they can march like they’re doing today.”
The 10th annual parade streaming down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast included D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), members of the D.C. Council, high school marching bands, union groups and nonprofit organizations. There were conga players on a flatbed truck, souped-up cars with oversize chrome wheels and people spontaneously dancing in the street.
Despite a freezing wind and temperatures in the 20s, organizers estimated that 800 to 900 people marched; and more lined the streets to cheer for them. They celebrated the civil rights leader and recalled the turbulent period in which he lived.
“People walked across state lines and went through a lot of hell to get to the rights we have today,” said Trayon White, a Ward 8 community organizer. “So we are obligated to stand in the gap for the hurt, the neglected.”
Mariah Parmely, 19, a student who lives a few blocks from the parade route, had bundled up with her 7-year-old brother to watch.
“If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” she said of King. “He just stood up for a lot of rights and freedoms, and that means a lot to me, because you don’t see too many people doing that these days.”
Banging drums and playing music, the marchers made their way slowly past Martin’s Food Town, past King Discount. A volunteer cried out, “Hot chocolate! Hot chocolate!” and handed out steaming hot cups.
But amid the festivity, a sense of frustration bubbled up because things haven’t improved more since King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. “Black Lives Matter” placards dotted the procession. A car displayed a sign reading, “Gentrification is Violence.” From inside another vehicle, adorned with a “Muslims for Peace” sign, young men handed out fliers explaining that Islam rejects terrorism.
“On the scale of one to 10, I give us a four,” said Patricia Carmon, 61, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative, wrapped in a Washington Redskins scarf and hat as she watched from the sidewalk. “We all need to work harder, we all need to vote. We all need to get out and vote in droves like we got out and voted for Barack Obama.”
But for Alex Ukaegbu, 67, of Oxon Hill, Md., attending the parade for the first time was a happy milestone. Growing up in Nigeria, he said, “From the time Martin Luther King was alive, I was a schoolkid, I heard so much about him.” Now an attendant for disabled people, Ukaegbu recalled reading about Selma, Ala., the Watts riot in Los Angeles and the Vietnam War in magazines in Nigeria and what a momentous effect King and his leadership had. “At that point, civil rights became very serious — that the black and white communities were not going back,” he said.
Shivering in thin coats, a group of interns from California State University at Northridge grinned as they watched singers on a truck belt out a funk-inflected tune. The interns had arrived in the District over the past two weeks. This was a side of the city they had not yet seen.
“This is the core of the community, the everyday people,” said Giovanni Zuniga, 29. “We’re working on the Hill, but these are the people.”
Back on his porch, Jones, a retired schoolteacher and counselor, had propped up a portrait of King painted onto a mirror. The icon’s voice boomed from the record player and echoed in the street: “We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.”
Standing in the sun with his cat, Tuxedo, Jones motioned for passers-by to pose for his camera.
“Black folks don’t document their history, that’s why I take pictures,” he said. “You’ve got to know where you’re coming from to know where you’re going.”
As he spoke, a few people stopped. They pulled out their own cameras and took pictures of Jones and his front porch.