MLK Day Organizers Spurred by Tradition and Honor

Members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. are among the dozens of organizations that participate in the annual MLK Holiday DC Parade. (WI Archives)

It’s either too long or too short; too many hills or not enough spectators; headed in the wrong direction or just too cold. No matter the complaints, the grassroots organizers of the MLK Holiday DC Peace Walk and Parade refuse to be discouraged and their relentless enthusiasm appears to be contagious.

In early September, the all-volunteer parade committee began meeting in a small office space offered by The Washington Informer or the United Black Fund, two established Ward 8 businesses that have occupied the Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue corridor for more than 30 years.

Last Saturday, with only nine days remaining before the arrival of the ML King Holiday, the national observance of the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader, nearly 100 volunteers crammed into the computer lab of the R.I.S.E. Center at St. Elizabeth’s. They came to finalize plans for this year’s Peace Walk and Parade and could barely restrain themselves from celebrating their efforts, once again, to honor one of America’s greatest heroes.

“Just 11 years ago, there were only three of us who decided to march for peace in honor of Dr. King,” said Yango Sawyer, one of the founders of the annual Martin Luther King Peace Walk and one of this year’s grand marshals.

Nearly 30 anti-gang and mentoring organizations joined Sawyer, along with community activist and former Ward 6 ANC Commissioner Keith Silver and Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes, a resident of Ward 8, to plan a peace walk. They believed it would fill the void left by several years of delays and cancellations of the parade then led by the late Council member Marion Barry. They also wanted to address the nagging problem of violence plaguing neighborhoods across the city.

“We were shocked and proud to see buses that morning bringing about 30 white students from Virginia to march with us for Dr. King,” Sawyer said. “Only about 350 marched on that day. It was amazing, and look at us now.”

The peace walk continued for several more years but under a great deal of pressure from residents throughout the D.C. area wanting to bring back the parade. And so it began again just five years ago. Now both events are held in conjunction but with two distinct routes and separate programs.

“We are One!” is the overall theme of this year’s peace walk and parade that will be held on Monday, Jan. 16. Over 60 groups have registered to participate so far including Mayor Muriel Bowser who will march with members of her executive office staff.

“The annual MLK parade is a significant event to our city, as well as the great Ward 8,” Bowser said in a statement. “The District has honored Dr. King’s sacrifices even before the national holiday was signed into law. I’ve marched in each parade and look forward to marching again this year and supporting the long standing tradition in our great city.”

Trayon White, who remembers watching and marching in the parade as a child growing up in Ward 8, will now participate as the newly-minted council member from Ward 8. It is a role he fought hard for and one that was inspired by his appreciation for Dr. King’s legacy.

“On what would have been the 88th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we pause to remember, pay tribute and say thank you to one who was often referred to as a ‘Drum Major for Peace’ and ‘Apostle for Non-Violence.’ In our beloved city where currently economic prosperity is only being experienced by a select few, each of us must rededicate our lives to making the dream of Dr. King a reality not only for the residents of Ward 8, but also across the District,” White said.

The U.S. Coast Guard Honor Guard, along with the MPD Honor Guard and ROTC teams from area high schools, will lead the parade. Observers can expect to see a host of organizations, District government agencies and area sports teams represented, but most important, several local marching bands from area schools are scheduled to be there including Woodson SHS, Eastern SHS, the Friendship PCS, the Potomac Gardens Drum Corp and the celebrated Ballou SHS Majestic Marching Band.

The peace walk will begin at 10 a.m. at 2500 ML King Ave SE and will proceed to the R.I.S.E. Center at St. Elizabeth’s. The parade will begin at noon and proceed on MLK Avenue SE through Downtown Anacostia past the iconic Big Chair and into Anacostia Park where it will end with a Health Fair and Festival under a heated tent.

NewsChannel 8 will broadcast the parade live. The hosts will be WJLA reporter Sam Ford and Denise Rolark Barnes.

For more information visit www.mlkholidaydc.org.

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