The annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday used to be just a day off from school for Jaydon Bailey.
But things changed this year.
The Chestatee High School student joined more than 100 marchers on Monday in a rally from the Butler Center to Fair Street International Academy in Gainesville to honor the legacy of the civil rights icon who was assassinated 50 years ago this April.
With the word “security” printed on his neon sweater, Bailey helped keep attendees in line and spectators at a distance as marchers sung “Let It Shine,” “Amazing Grace” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
“You don’t want no harm done,” he said. “It’s about keeping the community safe.”
Bailey, 15, said he could no longer watch footage on television and stand by.
“All the stuff that’s been going on in the news …” he said, pulling the hoodie from under his sweater tighter against the cool blue sky. “You want to help the world become a better place.”
Young men like Bailey are a source of solace and inspiration for older African-Americans.
“It makes me feel like somebody’s still carrying the torch,” said Sylvester Storey, 62, an Alto resident who was raised at the Green Hunter Homes in Gainesville, a former public housing complex off Atlanta Street. “I’m happy for what we’ve come from, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
This year’s theme for the MLK holiday, which included sermons and a youth rally in addition to the police-escorted march, centered on the call for affordable housing and health care for all.
“It’s a big problem and until you express it to everybody, it’s kind of shooed under the rug,” said Raymone Whelchel, referring to health care. “I’m from this neighborhood … as long as everyone rallies together … it can be overcome.”
The Times has reported extensively over the last two years on the affordable housing crunch that plagues Gainesville. There is simply not enough supply to meet demand from low-income and working-class families.
Moreover, better than 50 percent of all renters in Gainesville are considered “cost-burdened,” according to census figures, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
And, in recent months, hundreds of low-income families have faced significant rent increases as their apartment complexes exit a state tax credit program that kept costs below market rates.
Tonya Harris Jackson, a member of the Newtown Florist Club civil rights group who organized the holiday events, said bringing attention to a lack of affordable housing in Gainesville was as critical now as ever.
“Right now, at this moment, that’s what we’re going through,” said Jackson, who also founded Sisters With A Purpose.
Jackson added that too many families are losing their housing subsidies and are forced to reside in a hotel room “because they can’t afford to pay the rent and feed the kids, too.”
Arturo Adame, president of the Young Democrats, was asked to speak on the issue of affordable housing during the day’s events.
“I’m not so disillusioned with power holding us back,” he told The Times. “We have more power than we think. There are things we can all do to apply ourselves each and every day.”
Adame, 27, has been active at city council meetings and in the community advocating for new affordable housing development. But anybody can do it, he said.
“I’m just a regular, working-class guy that works in a warehouse driving a forklift,” Adame added. “There’s nothing inherently special about me except my ability to just empathize and having the courage to put myself in a position where I am speaking truth to power.”