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MLK celebrations in Gainesville push tradition forward
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Layanna Promise, 6, and Nashya Barnett, 6, walk during a march Monday as a part of the 2016 King Day Celebration in Gainesville. The march started at the Butler Center and concluded at Fair Street School, where a program for the community was held. - photo by Erin O. Smith

They came. They marched. They sang. They honored.

But most of all, the 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Gainesville pushed tradition forward, rejuvenating a holiday for the 21st century.

With a banner bearing the words, “We are keepers of the dream,” young students led hundreds of people on an hour-long walk through Ward 3, the city’s historic African-American neighborhood, in memory of the civil rights icon.

“To me, that should be happening all the time,” Brooke Oxner said.

The Newtown Florist Club, at the direction of a youth planning committee, revived the MLK holiday celebrations with a weeklong series of events, including a day of volunteer action.

It culminated with the annual march — all races welcome, all races present.

Newtown President Rose Johnson carried bullhorns, and with a police escort, demonstrators chanted calls for equality and recalled the hymnals of old.

The march is a symbol of the fight for social and economic justice that continues today, Johnson said.

And King remains the central figure in that American struggle.

Civil rights demonstrators have rallied in Gainesville every year since MLK’s assassination.

But this year a focused effort on passing the tradition on to a new generation of leaders helped reshape the event’s image.

Kids danced in the streets alongside their parents, while seniors braved the cold with help from rays shining down.

And the spirit was in some contrast to last year.

Protests in cities across the country following deadly incidents between white police officers and black men had left many minority communities on edge.

But the sense that the prejudice MLK fought so hard to eradicate still lingers has always been hard to shake.

Still, Monday’s gathering felt joyous. The holiday felt reborn.

The bleachers were full at the Fair Street School gym for speeches, a rendition of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech and personal tales of equality following the march.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” former Gainesville City Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras said.

Gainesville High students helped organize the traditional observance, with a dance team on hand and T-shirts on sale in the hallway to benefit future Newtown projects.

The event unites organizations, too, with the Grady Young Foundation providing free school supplies.

Fair Street Principal Will Campbell said he’s proud his school can help carry the tradition forward.

King’s own son and family visited the school just a few short months ago, something Campbell recalled when thinking how proud he felt on this holiday.

“It’s important to have the youth involved,” he said, adding that he hopes the impact will trickle down so that one day even elementary-age students can get involved in organizing celebrations around the holiday.

Blue Bell, a senior at Gainesville High who helped spearhead the committee, described the experience as an invaluable learning opportunity — not to mention a big success.

She’s been involved in MLK Day celebrations all her life, but something stood out this year.

“I’ve never seen so many young people here before,” Bell said.