This month, members of the Ward 8 community will celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy during a peace walk and parade along a major corridor named for the martyred civil rights figure who championed nonviolent resistance in the face of racial injustice.
Emma P. Ward, a senior and youth advocate, said the annual event, themed “From Many to One Beloved Community,” should resonate with the young people, particularly those whose friends and family met a fate similar to King.
“In the schools, the youth often say Dr. King was a good man. Some would even ask why someone would do that to him,” said Ward, Ms. Senior DC 2011 and a retired teacher. “They can feel that. Many of them had that experience and could identify with someone killing someone else.”
Ward counted among nearly 70 people — including members of government agencies, churches, nonprofits, and community organizations — who placed the finishing touches on preparations for the 13th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Walk & Parade during a meeting last weekend at St. Elizabeths East Gateway Pavilion in Southeast.
For her, learning about the event’s educational component, an essay contest about voting rights, proved the most impactful.
“There’s a tendency for education to not be as popular as the other subjects,” Ward said. “Those who do a lot in education don’t get recognized. When we talk about our youth, you have to deal with the seed and the root. Education is the root for the youth, who are the seeds. If they get an education, everything can sprout.”
The peace walk, taking place on the morning of Jan. 21, will take revelers through downtown Anacostia in Southeast, starting at the Black Workers Wellness Center, formerly known as the United Black Fund headquarters, and ending near Anacostia Park on Good Hope Road in Southeast. The parade will follow, wrapping up at the Gateway DC Pavilion.
Events in the days leading up to the Martin Luther King Peace Walk & Parade include an annual prayer breakfast at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast on Saturday, and a private event on Jan. 17 at Revival Temple Full Gospel Church in Southeast for families who have lost loved ones to gun violence. On Jan. 16, winners of the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute’s King holiday essay contest will read their work explaining why young people deserve the right to vote.
“The parade and march involve people and organization actively involved in addressing violence in our community. It’s in the memory of Dr. King, an advocate for non-violent solutions to our problems,” said Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of The Washington Informer, who serves as co-chair for the event’s planning committee along with returning citizens advocate Stuart Anderson.
On Jan. 21, Barnes and WJLA-TV (Channel 7) news anchor Sam Ford will be mistress and master of ceremonies.
“We hope that these events will reinforce the commitment the majority of people in Ward 8 have to nonviolence,” Barnes added. “The greatest challenge is making sure we have young people at the table to learn how and why we do this. We want to continue Dr. King’s legacy in the coming generations.”
Front Lines of a Movement
On Jan. 15, 1979, what would have been King’s 50th birthday, then-Ward 8 Council member Wilhelmina Rolark, Washington Informer founder Calvin Rolark, and radio personality Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene hosted the inaugural Dr. Martin Luther King parade. On that day, Ward 8 residents marched along the street that had come to be known as Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, due partly to Rolark’s efforts.
Around that time, the D.C. Council, with Rolark as a key facilitator, passed legislation making King’s birthday a local holiday. These events placed D.C. among the growing number of cities and states leading the charge for a federal holiday in King’s honor.
In 1983, 15 years after former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) first introduced legislation to institutionalize the practice, President Ronald Reagan (R) signed the bill into law.
Since King’s 1968 assassination, civil rights groups, activists and celebrities including music legend Stevie Wonder, had stood on the front lines of a movement to make the holiday possible.
At the second annual King parade in 1980, Wonder served as a grand marshal. The parade, then taking place around St. Elizabeths, concluded with a children’s program at Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ, the place then known as Covenant Baptist Church where Rolark’s office provided constituent services. Wonder, along with comedian and activist Dick Gregory, Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), and among other dignitaries, addressed an intergenerational audience of Ward 8 residents.
The King parade would remain a permanent fixture in Ward 8 for several years to come, until 2005 when frigid weather conditions forced its cancellation. The following year, Councilman Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) moved the parade to April, in commemoration of King’s assassination, to the chagrin of some residents.
Between 2007 and 2011, in the absence of the original parade that cemented King’s legacy in the Ward 8 community, Barnes, along with returning citizens advocate Yango Sawyer and Keith Silver, founder of Beloved Communities for PEACE, organized a coalition of churches and community groups around a peace walk.
In 2012, the original parade had been resurrected, only to be replaced by the peace walk again in 2013 due to financial and logistical constraints. By 2015, the peace walk had been combined with the parade.
The Bowser administration, in consultation with King holiday steering committee, decided that the parade and protest would coexist, though the parade would follow a route completely different from its counterpart.
This year, amid concerns about the longevity of this event in a city where other large public gatherings have fallen to the wayside, the Martin Luther King peace walk and parade has been sponsored by Events DC, The Washington Informer Charities, and a St. Elizabeths block grant.
But Merilyn C. Holmes, founder and executive director of Total Sunshine, Inc., a Iocal nonprofit geared toward supporting D.C. students in their educational endeavors, said it’s the dedication of committee members that pumps life into what she described as one of the District’s more organic, neighborhood-oriented King holiday celebrations.
Since joining planning efforts in 2008, Holmes has played her part, promoting the festivities on her public access television show and engaging young people who can carry on the tradition.
“The parade will continue because there are so many people who want to keep Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy,” Holmes said. “If it wasn’t for the committee, I’m not sure what the celebration would look like. It’s imperative that we maintain a committee of committed individuals. There are many heads of local nonprofits who volunteer their time in order to make sure Dr. King’s life is celebrated properly.”