Four days after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to make King’s birthday a national holiday.
Through the efforts of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, the King Center in Atlanta and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a petition supporting the holiday was submitted to Congress in 1971, and a few states, beginning with Illinois under the leadership of Harold Washington, then a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, passed King holiday bills. However, Conyers’s federal bill sat in Congress for eight years after he first introduced it, even though he and Rep. Shirley Chisolm reintroduced it every year.
In the meantime, instead of dying down as the years passed by, the memory of Dr. King and the enthusiasm for a holiday in his honor, especially on the local and state levels, grew stronger and stronger. In fact, Ward 8, including Covenant Baptist Church (now known as Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ), played a critical role in helping to make Martin Luther King’s birthday not only a local holiday, but also a national holiday.
Along with her husband, Dr. Calvin Rolark, a Ward 8 activist, newspaper publisher and founder/president of the Black United Fund, Attorney Wilhelmina Rolark, who had been elected to represent Ward 8 on the D.C. Council in 1976, began to advocate for a Martin Luther King holiday. From her Constituent Services Office located at Covenant, she did three significant things: First, she led the City Council in making King’s birthday a local holiday. Second, she led the effort to rename the street at the intersection on which Covenant sits from Nichols Avenue to Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. And third, she, along with her husband and legendary radio announcer Petey Greene, took the initiative in organizing the very first Martin Luther King Day Parade that was held on Monday, Jan. 15, 1979.
As a result of these and other events, the momentum for a national King holiday continued to build and in November 1979, a bill supporting the idea was finally voted on and defeated in the House of Representatives by only five votes. But as more states, trade unions, civil rights organizations, and other advocates got on board, a key turning point occurred when Conyers asked his friend and fellow Detroit resident Stevie Wonder to lend his voice and influence to the movement. It is no coincidence, then, that when Stevie, who gladly accepted Conyers’s invitation, was looking for an early platform to express his support for the national King holiday, he came to Ward 8 in D.C. to become the Grand Marshall of the second annual Martin Luther King Day parade in January 1980. When the parade concluded with a children’s program and an overflow crowd crammed into the Covenant sanctuary, Wonder, along with comedian Dick Gregory, Congressman Ron Dellums and other national and local celebrities and dignitaries, stood in the pulpit to address an enthusiastic, intergenerational audience composed primarily of Ward 8 residents.
Later that same year, Stevie appeared on the cover of the April edition of Ebony magazine that featured an article titled, “The Secret Life of Stevie Wonder.” The article included pictures of him viewing the parade from the steps of Covenant and speaking from the pulpit during the program. 1980 also marked the release of his album, “Hotter Than July,” that carried his new hit song, “Happy Birthday,” calling for a national holiday in honor of King’s birthday. In January 1981, Stevie performed the song at a King holiday rally on the National Mall before a huge crowd.
In 1982, Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder presented petitions containing more than 6 million signatures in support of a King holiday to House Speaker Tip O’Neil. In August 1983, just before the 20th anniversary celebration of the 1963 March on Washington, the House of Representatives passed the King holiday bill and the Senate followed suit in October. On Nov. 3, 1983, President Reagan signed a bill establishing the third Monday of every January as the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, with the first official celebration scheduled for Jan. 20, 1986. Almost 18 years after King’s assassination, through lots of hard work, unity and determination, the dream of a national Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday became a reality.
More Recent History
After several years of the parade route ending at Covenant, followed by a children’s program in the church sanctuary, the massive crowd of parade and program participants/spectators eventually outgrew the church’s capacity. But while the termination point was moved to the Patricia Roberts Harris Educational Center on South Capitol Street, and later to the Leckie Elementary School on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, Covenant continued to sponsor an annual MLK program that was held at the church each year immediately following the parade.
Due to extremely cold weather, the 2005 parade was cancelled. Subsequently, Council member Marion Barry decided to move the 2006 parade to early April, a much warmer month in which it could be scheduled around the anniversary of King’s assassination. While this decision was apparently made in the interest of the health and welfare of participants and spectators, it was not without controversy. Consequently, from 2007-2011, in lieu of a parade, a coalition of churches and community organizations came together under the leadership of Denise Rolark Barnes, Yango Sawyer and Keith Silver to sponsor an annual Peace Walk along the same route that the parade had followed along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
Monday, Jan. 16, 2012, marked a one-time resurrection of the parade that had become a sacred community tradition conceived in 1978, began in 1979, and suspended in 2006. Due to financial and other logistical considerations, however, the Peace Walk again replaced the parade in 2013-2014. In 2015-2016, the Peace Walk continued, but was combined with yet another resurrection of the Parade. Finally, after consultation with current Mayor Muriel Bowser, the MLK Steering Committee decided that on Monday, Jan. 15, 2017, the Peace Walk and parade would continue to co-exist, but the parade would follow a completely new route. For the first time, instead of proceeding south on MLK Avenue from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital past Covenant Church, the Parade would proceed north through downtown Anacostia and conclude at Anacostia Park.
Issues for Reflection and Consideration
First, we must continue to hold the annual Peace Walk and/or parade in January on the King holiday. As we continue to ponder all the factors that determine whether we have a parade, a Peace Walk, or some alternating combination of the two, and what route these processions will follow, we must remember that while we never want to jeopardize the participants in this event, young or old, by exposing them to hazardously cold weather, perhaps moderately uncomfortable weather is nature’s way of reminding us that the struggle for freedom is not always comfortable. The Montgomery bus boycotters who walked and car-pooled to work instead of riding the bus were not comfortable. The innocent little children who desegregated all-white schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, were not comfortable. The college students who sat in at segregated lunch counters in Greensboro, N.C., and the Freedom Riders who rode throughout the deep South, sometimes being beaten to a pulp, were not comfortable. The targets of Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses in “Bombingham,” Alabama were not comfortable. The nonviolent demonstrators who filled the city’s jails were not comfortable. The marchers who tried to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday were not comfortable. And, definitely, King and others who suffered death so that we might enjoy the comforts of freedom were not comfortable.
So if the third Monday in January is sometimes a little uncomfortable, let us keep in mind that the 20th century prophet named Martin Luther King Jr. was not called to make society comfortable, but to make it uncomfortable — uncomfortable with racism, uncomfortable with segregation, uncomfortable with discrimination, and uncomfortable with the absence of freedom, justice, and equality for all.
Second, we must always be sure to involve our children in every aspect of the King holiday. I will never forget how concerned then-Council member Wilhelmina Rolark was about making sure that the children, including the very young children, played a prominent role in the post-parade program held at Covenant. If we are to ensure the continuation of King’s dream, we must continue to pass it down to and through our children.
Third, we must make sure that the event remains a community event. As the late Calvin Rolark used to say, “Lottie, Dottie, and everybody” ought to feel welcome — including the politicians, the dignitaries, the celebrities, and the VIPs. But, in the spirit of Dr. King, this day is not about them. It is about the little people, the forgotten people, the grass-roots people, the ordinary people for whom he gave his life. It is about people who are struggling to survive. It is about people who are just trying to keep their heads above water. It is about you and it is about me.
Finally, we must never forget the people and the institutions that founded this annual event. The name Rolark has always been associated with this event. The name Petey Greene has always been affiliated with this event. Ballou High School and its marching band have always been connected with this event. And Covenant Church — then pastored by my late father, Rev. H. Wesley Wiley, at the parade’s inception — has always been a part of this event. Certainly, there are other names I could add to this list.
But while it is important for us to remember these names, it is even more important for us to remember that this day should always be a day when we transcend our differences in order to come together, work together, reflect together, celebrate together, and rededicate ourselves together to continue building “the beloved community.” For this was a work began by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless other sung and unsung heroes and sheroes who sacrificed their time, their energy, their resources, their bodies and even their lives so that, today, we could enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice.