The sound of hundreds of people marching could not be heard in Gainesville this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the voices of those standing up for nonviolent social change still reached the community on Monday, Jan. 18.
During Newtown Florist Club’s 35th annual observance program, government officials, local youth, ministers and other leaders in the community honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in an over 3-hour-long video streamed on social media.
The morning opened with prayer and encouragement from members of the Interdenominational Black Ministers Association and transitioned into several teachable moments about the role of music in the civil rights movement, as well as arts and culture.
Stacey Abrams, Georgia-based voting rights activist and politician, made an appearance in the virtual celebration, shining light on the positive work the Newtown Florist Club has done in Hall County.
“I smiled when I read about the Newtown that grew out of such tragedy, that grew out to the tornados that ravaged the community,” Abrams said. “And I think about the joy that we felt this year when we saw change sweep over Georgia. When we saw real change, positive change and absolute difference in how we approached our democracy.”
She encouraged people to celebrate the fact that Georgia is sending the first Black senator and first Jewish senator to the United States Senate.
“But, it speaks so much of who we are that we came together as a state to make a statement that we are much bigger than people remember, and that we are capable of much more than people imagine,” Abrams said. “Because ultimately, that is exactly what we’ve been called upon to do by the legacy of Dr. King.”
Why we march
Instead of ending the annual program with a march, a panel of community members shared the reasons why they march each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and what the event’s theme — Stand up! Speak up! Be active! Participate in community life! — means to them.
For over 45 years, the Newtown Florist Club has organized a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in Gainesville. Ron Sheats, member of the civil rights organization, shared that he marches with others to show solidarity, unity and a stance for peace.
“The reason we march is that we care about what’s going on in this society,” he said.
Brandon Evans, mentorship coordinator for Gainesville City Schools and founder of Men Alive LLC, said when he talks to his 88-year-old grandfather, he’s reminded of the sacrifices older generations have made so he can freely march.
“We have to speak up, we have to speak out and we have to be visible in our communities,” Evans said. “If we’re not visible, some people won’t take us seriously … If we have to march in order to get our voices heard, I think that’s very important for us to do in today’s society.”
Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish joined the live conversation, offering his department’s perspective of preparing for the annual march. Once Newtown Florist Club secures a permit for the march, he said his team then coordinates with the Georgia Department of Transportation to plan a safe route and keep motorists from accidentally and intentionally interfering with the event. Parrish said he staffs around 20 extra officers during each Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday for the march.
The police chief then shared what the day’s theme of standing up and speaking up in the community means to him.
“For a police officer, a lot of times stand up, speak up means that we keep our mouth shut and listen to what the people are saying,” he said. “ … It also means, from the other side of the coin, if we see another officer doing something they shouldn't, they have to stand up and speak up. Since the George Floyd incident, I think that’s what I’ve been harder on our team about than anything.”
Black youth share social injustices
For the youth rally portion of the event, young members of the community put together a collaboration of music and dance performances, inspirational readings and periods of personal reflection.
T’asia Robinson, senior at West Hall High School, expressed how Black students of her generation are fearing for their lives more and more. When seeing the injustices surrounding Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s deaths, Robinson said she feels the need to prepare for the worst.
“I fear (for) my younger brother, who is 12 years old, who has community ties, when he leaves out of the house,” she said. “That is one thing that breaks my heart. That is one thing that makes me feel the way I do today.”
Anyrhi McCray, a senior at Johnson High School, spoke about the social injustices he has faced for just being a young Black man.
While selling fruit to his neighbors to raise money for his school’s band, McCray said a woman wrongfully accused him of looking through her garage and potentially planning a robbery with a friend.
“When we talk about equality, we’re not just talking about equal rights,” he said. “We also just want to be seen as normal people not as a threat or as a target. Dr. King always speaks about love and nonviolence, but more than 50 years later, and the mere existence of a black male is still seen as a threat.”
For those who missed the Newtown Florist Club’s virtual event, the video can still be viewed on the nonprofit’s Facebook page.