We've been doing MLK Day here in DC since I was a child, which was a long time ago. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn't. It is still cold AF in January, but thankfully the sun was out and it wasn't below 40 degrees. The parade route wasn't that long even though it still travels through the 'hood along MLK Avenue (down the SE side instead of the SW side). The hood itself has changed--we passed by a Starbucks, and that wasn't anywhere near here 40 years ago, let alone 5. Maybe I wasn't all that observant as a kid, but there were as many white people on the sidelines as spectators as there were cops, so that was also quite the change.
I have a dream that one day...little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. (1963)
Of course, the biggest change from 40 years ago is that with MLK Day celebrated as a local event well before it became a national holiday, it was held on January 15, his actual birthday, as opposed to the third Monday in January. So I am old enough to remember a time when there were no Black federal holidays; furthermore, because I grew up in a Chocolate City, I had no clue that there were Confederate holidays. Who knew that just over the bridge in the Commonwealth of Old Virginny they were celebrating Robert E. Lee as some kind of American hero (until just a few years ago)?
Put a pin in that for now. When I sat down to write initially, I was motivated by adrenaline, nostalgia, and pride. Adrenaline from the two miles of walking; nostalgia from reflecting on my past MLK parade participation; and pride that I am now passing on that legacy to the Kid. My initial thought was to post a few pictures and offer some commentary, but then I realized how this felt like a larger full circle moment, connecting my childhood memories to something that might serve as a guide for my daughter in the future. Ironically, we were supposed to be marching in a different capacity and role, but that fell through. Instead, we ended up falling in with her Girl Scout troop, which was an even better way to mark the occasion, so that definitely got me all in my feelings.
Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. (1968)
Our local MLK parade began in 1979 and it was considered a high honor for your school to be chosen to participate. From my recollection, most of the local high schools got to march, and a lucky few of the junior high and elementary schools were also invited. I do not recall the exact year that my elementary school was chosen, but it was a big deal. Our delegation consisted of the cheerleaders, pom-pom girls, drill team, and safety patrol. Now I have to be honest that technically, I was not actually in the parade that year because I wasn't old enough; however, I swear (and it is the honest to God truth) that I was at the parade! Not only was I there, but so was the King family, various local and national civil rights dignitaries, and a lot of celebrity activists, including the phenomenal Stevie Wonder*!
The official designation of the holiday was signed in 1983, and full observance began in 1986 when I was in middle school. It was only then that I began to understand that we had been marching and advocating for a lot more than just a day off from work and/or school. I had not realized that our annual MLK Day parade was actually a major lobbying event for several civil rights issues, such as calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa and for DC Statehood. When I started high school in the fall of 1986, it was an eye-opener to learn that implementing MLK Day into our school calendar had been a challenge, whereas tacking on snow days after a blizzard...
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. (1956)
Fast forward to the actual MLK Day Parade where I have vivid memories of participating, when I was in college. In the early days of this blog, I wrote about that experience here, and a few years later, someone posted this picture to Facebook that proves I was there. Pull out your readers and take a look at the caption:
If you're squinting to see me, I am wearing the third set of white go-go boots on the left. Somehow, I had forgotten that this had only been the 6th Annual MLK Day Parade in King's hometown of Atlanta although I'm pretty sure that I must have told everybody in the band how DC had its own parade for years. In addition to the other reasons already shared here, this parade was memorable because my older cousin BCW also marched with his college band, and I was so excited to call our Grandmother afterwards to tell her that I saw him. (However, his excitement to see me was tempered by the sight of me in that outfit, so we'll just leave it at that.)
All of those warm and fuzzy memories aside, I think it is interesting how some of my articulated concerns from 2011 about MLK Day becoming this Day of Service have been picked up by others. Perhaps it was inevitable that after 40 years, there would be some backlash over what the holiday should be and what it has become. For my part, I have evolved to see the service aspect as a good thing, especially if we make it a point to teach young people why the work itself is about more than the photos posted to social media. Yes, we should collect toiletries, socks, gloves, and snacks for the unhoused. But then we should also advocate for policies and programs to aid people in that kind of dire need. A warm pair of socks is no substitute for a warm place to sleep every night. Sure, get people to clean up the public parks and the sides of the highways, but then make sure everyone understands how that relates to Dr. King's work. Make sure that they see the connection to community beautification and MLK's famous quote about street sweepers, or more significantly how his last public protest involved elevating the dignity of all work, especially work deemed hard and undesirable.
Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?' (1957)
Before his stroke in 2016, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright had a standing engagement to preach at Howard University every MLK Sunday and I would take my Mom as part of our official weekend of activities. I recall one of his most poignant sermons centered on the annual ritual where certain folks would intentionally misquote Dr. King, and in that masterful way that Black preachers often frame prophetic truths, this theme has stayed with me: Do not allow yourselves to be seduced by the convenience of the soundbite, lest we allow MLKs legacy be reduced to just a soundbite. You can probably guess what soundbite he was referring to...
Therefore, while it was great to leave the house for that prayer breakfast; to engage in civic-minded activities such as laying a wreath at the Memorial; to collect and donate stuff for charity; and then to participate in the parade, the work of honoring Dr. King must evolve. It needs to become more than linking arms to sing We Shall Overcome, calling out hypocrisy on social media, or writing think pieces about why all of these gestures are superficial. Forty years ago, when we were lobbying hostile political forces to designate this holiday, it was not so that y'all could spend every year congratulating yourselves on that accomplishment. Yes, please dedicate your day off to doing something meaningful other than shopping and TV binge watching, but also ask yourself what would MLK be doing?
This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. (1963)
Let's make a deal that if we keep the parades, peace walks, and the service component, we also must insist on more education and activism. There was a labor union marching behind the Girl Scouts and it was quite the moment when we were stopped in front of that Starbucks. Because we know the hood needs business investment, but must that also mean gentrification and displacement? In 40 years will my daughter be reminiscing about the neighborhood where the MLK Parade used to be held? And now that we've got elected officials throughout the country who are pushing back against inclusive curricula, will MLK Day become another culture war skirmish? Virginia may have abandoned its official celebration of Gen. Robert E. Lee and taken his statues down, but for how long? Because I predict the day will come when someone misuses a couple of King quotes to justify recoupling Lee and King for the sake of forgiveness and brotherhood:
Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude. (1962)
Hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. (1967)
Isn't that essentially the stance of some conservative commentators who argue that we have strayed far from their interpretation of MLK's dream? That they were only willing to go along with celebrating a gentle Black Messiah-like figure who forgave their parents and grandparents for their racism. Once we insisted on quoting the King who overturned tables in the temple by making demands for more than integrated coffee, we were asking for too much.
There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. (1963)
Mind you, that quote was taken from the same speech where MLK shared his prophetic dream of building the beloved community. That community isn't the one where we build walls to keep America exclusive to only the few. It isn't where we criminalize parents for allowing their children to explore their own truths. And it certainly isn't some colorblind utopia where people justify their racism by defining merit to maintain their advantage in society.
The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts--in the urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one--a struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity. MLK to Caesar Chavez in 1966
When we say that things have come full circle, it is with the belief that we have come back to a starting point. It is not to suggest that there has been no progress, but to signify how lessons or experiences from the past often have parallels to what we are currently facing. I began this with the idea that I had come full circle with my participation in local MLK Day Parades by now seeing my daughter participate. It appears so has our country--back to where we were 40 years ago with many of the same arguments and debates over the meaning of racial justice and progress. Most of the people who claim that we've made enough progress or that we've achieved the 'dream' were and still are on the wrong side of history. That will never change, so we who believe in freedom cannot rest (not even on MLK Day) until:
...[J]ustice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (1963)
* This is not footage from the MLK Parade, but from the 20th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington later that same year.