The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade that takes place on the third Monday of January has long recognized the contributions of the slain civil rights leader but, in the District of Columbia, it has recently taken a political tone.
On Jan. 15, several community organizations took part in the annual parade starting approximately at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, S.E. and Good Hope Road., S.E. and marching southward to the Barry Farm Recreation Center. D.C. Statehood Rep. Franklin Garcia (D) has been a participant in the event for years.
“I am here to celebrate the life of Dr. King,” Garcia, a leader in the D.C. Latino Caucus, told the AFRO. “This time it is important because we are dealing with an oppressive presidential administration that has a bias against some immigrants. There are some people who want to keep us down but we must speak out and take a stand against this oppression.”
D.C. statehood is a cause Garcia has worked for years and one of the most prominent entrants in the parade was the Stand Up! for Democracy Coalition, with executive director Anise Jenkins riding on the back of a car.
“The capital of the nation is the last plantation. Free D.C.,” Jenkins shouted into a megaphone consistently during the eight-block route. The D.C. Republican Party had a small contingent and none of the marchers wore or had gear with President Trump’s name on it.
The annual parade began in 1979 when it was organized by media personality Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene and co-founders of the Washington Informer Newspaper, Calvin and then D.C. Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8). The parade’s theme was “Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos,” named after one of King’s most prophetic books.
Every mayor of the District has marched in the parade and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) is no exception. When asked by the AFRO whether the parade was becoming too political and distracting from the life of King, she was blunt.
“Yes, this is a political event,” she said. “In D.C., politicians always are involved in these types of events.”
Participating in the parade was D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and D.C. Council members Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Robert White (D-At Large), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8). Parade observers noted that the Bowser contingent marched at the beginning of the procession, while Gray was several spaces behind with his supporters. White told the AFRO that participating in the parade is part of his plans on King Day.
“I go into the city and volunteer and I do this to recognize the legacy of Martin Luther King,” he said. White agreed with Bowser that the parade is a political event saying “any event in D.C. is political and this is no different.”
The parade consisted of non-political entrants such as District public schools, dance troupes, Black Greek letter organizations such as Alpha Phi Alpha, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Iota Phi Theta, the U.S. Coast Guard, Gallaudet University, the University of the District of Columbia, the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum, and Angel Lost, an organization that is trying to find Relisha Rudd, a Black child that has been missing since March 1, 2014.
Trayon White was happy to be at the event. “This is a great day to honor a great man,” he told the AFRO. “I wish the route was larger but that is because of the city code but we won’t let that stop us.”
Candidates and emerging political leaders participated in the parade, too. Sheika Reid is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Ward 1 council member on June 19 and told the AFRO why she marched. “We live in One DC,” Reid said. “We all want to live in a prosperous city and that should be throughout the city, not just one community.”
Reid, a native Washingtonian, said the evet is one of the District’s historic traditions and should continue “because the parade is about social justice.”