Parade pulls thousands in King's honor

Inaugural city event is expected to mark start of tradition

`It's been too long coming'

Around nation, cities come face to face with their past

Honoring Dr. King

Jan. 15, 2001

January 16, 2001|By Lynn Anderson and Jamie Stiehm | Lynn Anderson and Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Baltimore, a city that exploded in anger and riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. nearly 33 years ago, celebrated the slain civil rights leader's birthday yesterday with a joyous parade down the boulevard named in his honor.

The inaugural parade - an affair that included high school bands, hip-hop dancers and robed choral groups - is likely to mark the start of a tradition that many in the crowd said was too long in coming.

Along the parade route, residents talked about King, the social changes for which he died and the long road still ahead. Parade participants and observers evoked the memory of the slain leader, who won international fame for his nonviolent stand against racial segregation.

Among those caught up in poignant memories was Baltimore Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., 69, who was a fire lieutenant on April, 4, 1968, when King was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tenn. As civil unrest whipped through Baltimore and blocks of houses burned, Williams worked to douse fires while fighting his own sorrow and fury.

"Every time you heard him, he filled you up," said Williams, recalling King's inspirational oratory.

Grand marshal Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., associate dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, recalled how as a 10-year-old he met King 45 years ago in Montgomery, Ala., where he was a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Watkins has remained close with the King family through the years, he said.

During a visit with King's widow, Coretta Scott King, last weekend in Atlanta, Watkins told her about Baltimore's parade. "Mrs. King loved it, loved it," Watkins said.

"This helps to neutralize the pain that is still there," Watkins said of King's death. "But I am happy: This is a symbol of Baltimore being progressive and liberal."

The float for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has its headquarters in Baltimore, featured King's "I Have A Dream" speech and a wax statue of NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Children and young people, dressed in yellow rain slickers, waved from the foot of the statue.

"This parade is right on time," said Michael Hunt, 17, an NAACP youth coordinator.

Around the nation, other cities came face to face with their past.

For the first time, Virginia marked King's birthday separately from a day honoring two Civil War generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In Atlanta, former Mayor Andrew Young gave the keynote speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church, once King's pulpit, and urged that political polarization be put aside.

Also in the South, about 1,000 people rallied against the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. In Denver, hundreds of people hugged strangers, held hands and marched through the city.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, Katie, who took lead roles in organizing the event, walked hand in hand near the front of the parade.

Behind them streamed marchers of all ages that included members of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, the Irishman's Chorale and the City College High School marching band. "The city never came together before," said Katie O'Malley, who was a U.S. Senate intern in the 1980s when the debate over creating a federal holiday to honor King took place.

Pointing to her children - Tara, Grace and William - nestled in an open horse carriage with her father, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., she said: "They don't understand prejudice, but they need to."

The parade was a family event for many residents, some of whom juggled diaper bags, umbrellas and worn-out toddlers as they took in the sights.

Postal worker Amber Pringle, 37, brought her daughter, Ashley, 15, and six other children from her East Baltimore neighborhood to see the parade. Others wanted to go, but there wasn't room in her car.

When King was assassinated, Pringle said, "I remember my mama sitting on a couch crying. Sadness fell over the house."

Cloudy skies and a chilly mist didn't keep multitudes from lining the parade route - five people deep in some places.

"If it was raining hard I'd still be here," said Alfreda Hall, 47, a data entry clerk from Baltimore.

Before the pageant of horses, drummers and dancers kicked off, visitors at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue got a sobering and graphic view of U.S. history as they filed past scenes depicting lynchings and crowded slave ships.

As 14 children on a field trip from McLean, Va., entered the lynching room, many turned their heads from the mannequins painted to look as if they had been burned and stabbed.

"Oh my gosh," said Fletcher Lopez, 9, of Sterling, Va., as he entered the room, one of many in the museum, which includes wax statues of famous educators, artists, religious leaders and politicians.

When the group viewed two drinking fountains - one marked "For whites" and the other "For coloreds" - some children were confused.

"What are coloreds?" asked Dacee Chimgee, 11, of Falls Church, Va.

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