Hundreds of people from across the Washington region and the country participated in a march through the streets of Southwest and Southeast Washington to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the 35th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Peace & Freedom Walk on Saturday.
Marching bands and colorful banners, coupled with a feeling of camaraderie among participants, marked the day devoted to a man who wanted individuals to be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. The civil rights icon fought to overcome injustice wherever it reared its head.
"There is a lot we need to do to overcome," Trayon White, 28, the Ward 8 D.C. State Board of Education member told a crowd gathered in an area near the United Black Fund building on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Southeast on Jan. 19. The event celebrates the work of a person who paid the ultimate price so that others could be free, he said. "The price of freedom is death, but we have to carry the torch."
The march to honor King was started in the 1970s by Calvin and Wilhelmina Rolark, co-founders of The Washington Informer along with television and radio talk-show host Petey Greene. It has evolved into an annual event that's attracted support from national civil rights leaders and film and television personalities such as Nick Cannon.
Cannon, 32, a popular rapper, actor and the husband of well-known singer Mariah Carey, served as the Grand Marshal during the second phase of the Peace & Freedom Walk along Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue.
"We are going to make it happen," said Cannon, as participants prepared to march to Shepherd Park. The Hollywood celebrity marched several hundred feet with the group before leaving the Peace Walk to attend another engagement.
The Freedom & Peace Walk replaced the parade this year – which usually takes place on King's holiday – because it happened to fall on the day of President Barack Obama's inauguration.
The march started as a "Freedom Walk" with dozens marching on the Frederick Douglass Bridge from Lansburg Park in Southwest. When the Freedom Walk marchers reached the area near the United Black Fund offices, the participants and passersby stopped to listen and dance to the sounds of the Cass Technical High School Marching Band from Detroit, Mich. They also heard from Lonise Bias, the mother of the late basketball great Len Bias, who addressed the crowd during the event.
"We decided to participate in this program because it symbolizes the importance of Dr. King's work," said Sharon Allan, the director of the Cass Technical High School Marching Band. "We are here in Washington to participate in a band competition in Hyattsville and to witness the inauguration of President Obama."
W. Philip Thomas, a black advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 3, said he made the trek across the city to participate in the Freedom Walk because it was important to him. He also wants to make a difference in the District.
"I want to help build bridges across the city," he said, while holding a red and white Ward 3 Democratic Committee sign.
Two hundred marchers from various educational, cultural and political organizations marched 1.2 miles southeast on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue to Shepherd Park in the Peace Walk. Neighbors watched through their windows, on their front porches and on sidewalks as the group marched by.
Charles Pyatt, of Southeast, liked what he saw.
"This is good," said Pyatt, 59. "This is good for the community."
D.C. Council at-large candidates Elissa Silverman, Patrick Mara and Perry Redd also joined in the Peace Walk.
There were chants from various organizations, such as one urging D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to resign from Empower D.C. in Northwest to "Free D.C." from the Stand Up for Democracy organization that's also based in Northwest. Members of the Anacostia High School football team, led by coach and former NFL star and alumnus Cato June, picked up trash along the corridor to fulfill community credit hours.
At Shepherd Park, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) talked about King's legacy and how he might feel about today's societal ills.
"Dr. King would have been 84 this year," said Gray, 70. "He would be deeply disappointed and depressed about the gun violence in our society. It is a travesty what is going on in our country but the question is what are we going to do about it?"
Gray also said that King would be in the forefront of the struggle for D.C. self-determination.
Lisa Shaw, an organizer of the event, said the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace & Freedom Walk turned out well.
"It was tremendous," Shaw said. "We had great success. People should stay tuned for the 36th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, which will take place in January 2014," she said with a smile.