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'A little bit of magic': Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Miami means celebration and service

MLK_Parade_2023_3_Photo_by_Kate_Payne.jpg
Photo by Kate Payne
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Scores of people came out to cheer on the annual MLK Day parade in Liberty City, which event organizers say is the country's oldest parade celebrating the civil rights icon. Members of the Miami Central High School marching band were among those parading down NW 54th Street.

In Miami, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day of celebration and service.

Throughout the city, locals gathered to make noise, make cheer and make a difference in honor of the late Reverend Dr. King.

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In Overtown, community members with the education nonprofit City Year Miami gathered at Frederick Douglass Elementary School to celebrate their annual MLK Day of Service. Dozens of volunteers took up paint brushes, potting soil and garbage bags to beautify the school with a series of murals and outdoor art projects.

Veronica Bello, the elementary's principal, told a crowd of volunteers that the school's theme this year is "creating magic," and the service performed today was a part of that charm.

"I know tomorrow our students, when they walk into these doors, they're going to be very excited because I did tell them a little bit of magic would be touched upon our school today. All of that happened because of you all being here," Bello said.

As City Year staffer Dunnia Alvarez put it, the civic engagement that her organization and others perform on MLK Day serves more than one purpose: it provides a public good for those on the receiving end, but it also shows potential volunteers that community service can make for a good time.

"I want other people to be able to commit to service and actually have fun. Service sometimes sounds like you're doing something, but you can have fun with it too," Alvarez said with a smile.

In Liberty City, scores of people crowded the sidewalks along NW 54th Street on Monday to cheer on what organizers claim is the country’s oldest MLK Day parade.

Families cheered on a stream of floats and convertibles, looking for shade under the palm trees and snacking on fresh mango as politicians and community leaders rode by, throwing beads and t-shirts to the soundtrack of high school and college marching bands.

Organizers say the parade route down NW 54th Street retraced some of Dr. King’s travels in Miami. He visited the city often, becoming a regular at the historic Hampton House, where he gave an early version of his famed “I Have A Dream” speech.

Founded in 1977 by local activist, educator and chaplain Dr. Preston W. Marshall Jr., Miami's annual parade predates the creation of the federal holiday honoring the life and legacy of the civil rights icon.

Irene Jones came to the event with her daughter Yvonne Lewis. Jones says she grew up picking cotton in Georgia before moving south and has experienced in her own lifetime the country’s long march towards a multiracial democracy.

“I know about that struggle," she said. "I came here in ‘64,” “It was rough. Struggling. But I’m still here.”

Vital to learn civil rights legacy

Anthony Daniels and his wife brought three of their children to the event, despite the fact he had to go to work later in the day.

Daniels said it’s vital for younger generations to learn about the legacy of slavery and the movements for civil rights, at a time when state lawmakers are restricting how issues of racism and discrimination can be talked about in schools — prompting some professors to cancel classes focused on the history of systemic racism in America.

“We don't want these politicians bringing back more segregation … trying to separate us as people. That's not the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King had,” Daniels said. “He had a dream for all of us to be together, to be out here and march and do exactly what we're doing right now.”

Daniels says that coming out each year to participate in one of the country’s longest-running celebrations of Dr. King is about proving that “we can come together”.

“All type of ethnicities … Black, Hispanic, white or whatever the case may be. We're coming together,” he said. “This is all about togetherness. And just peace.”