Warmed by spirit of MLK

Parade: Baltimoreans turn out by the thousands to honor the civil rights leader's legacy and enjoy the spectacle.

January 20, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Ignoring a bitterly cold wind, thousands of people stood shoulder to shoulder in the ice along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard yesterday to cheer for a parade honoring the civil rights leader and to reflect on how he might view his nation today.

Families perched on the curb, heaping blankets over their legs to keep warm. Drill team dancers, high-stepping to the thunder of drums, wore earmuffs and scarves. Hawkers sold gloves and hats instead of balloons and flags.

But not even the frigid temperature could cool the passion everyone there felt for King and his message.

"When you are in a situation in which our nation is spending more money on war than on educating children, we should remember that Martin Luther King stood for peace," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who marched near the front of the parade.

"Forty-four-million people in this country lack health insurance. Nine-million are unemployed. As we march down Martin Luther King Boulevard, it causes you to pause and wonder, `What would he have thought of this situation?'" Cummings said.

More than 80 organizations - from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the Christian Motorcycle Association - sponsored floats, drill teams or groups of marchers in the parade that started at Eutaw Street and made its way south to Baltimore Street.

Six riders from the United Horsemen's Association led a riderless horse down the street, with a sign hanging from its saddle: "This horse represents our troops that lost their lives."

A steel drum band jammed atop an NAACP float with a large American flag flapping behind it in the wind. A green Baltimore Department of Public Works trash truck rumbled down the street, with a banner on its side that had a picture of King's face and the years he lived, 1929-1968.

"Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968," the banner read. "He was there supporting sanitation workers. Honor them by honoring those who keep Baltimore clean."

Brian Snowden, a 35-year-old electrical engineer from the city, balanced his bundled-up, 3-year-old daughter, Shariyha, on his shoulders, as they watched the Frederick Douglass High School Marching Band dance past, kicking and rocking to a powerful drum beat.

"Martin Luther King did a lot for African-Americans and for our country," said Snowden. "He paved the way for a lot of people to be able to make it. Things are a lot better than they used to be, but the struggle for civil rights is still not over."

Hazel Teal, a 53-year-old Lochearn resident who wore a bright red coat, hat, gloves, scarf and sunglasses, brought her grandchildren, Makayla Bess, 4; Lauren Bess, 3; and 16-month old Nia Warren.

"A lot of time when you tell children about history, it's boring. But this is more of a fun activity that they can learn from," said Teal.

Mayor Martin O'Malley walked with his 15-month-old son, Jack, perched on his shoulder; his wife, Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, at his side; and their three other children holding hands and striding along.

"It's most important for our kids to remember that Martin Luther King was such a remarkable man, such a remarkable American," the mayor said.

When a television reporter asked what Jack O'Malley had to say about King, his father smiled broadly and replied: "He'd like to say a lot, but he is incapable of speaking."

City Council President Sheila Dixon waved to the crowd from the back of a convertible. She was followed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who walked side by side down the center of the street.

"This day means a lot to us, on a lot of different levels," said Ehrlich. "On a personal level, Martin Luther King's birthday was the day we were inaugurated and Michael became the first African-American lieutenant governor in state history."

The grand marshal of the parade was Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, who walked with his son Christopher, 13.

"I remember the night of Dr. King's assassination. I was a teen-ager at the time, and I remember how it tore our nation apart," Mfume said. "Since then, we have made progress, but our fight against racism and sexism continues.

"The real challenge is to be able to stand up against what is wrong, and fight for what is right, and not just assume that we don't have to do it because Dr. King already did."

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