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MLK Day renews spirit of activism
Ten-year-old Sydney Stephens joins in the annual march.

 ‘I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me, ‘Don’t hang around’
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Sam Cooke 
“A Change is Gonna Come,” 1964


Civil rights demonstrators have rallied in downtown Gainesville annually on Martin Luther King Jr. Day since 1986, when it was first observed.

While that history may not amount to marching on Selma, Ala., the tradition has taken on a new urgency among local African-American residents this year.

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today,” MLK once said. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

Monday’s march through the downtown square and out to the Fair Street neighborhood comes on the heels of a few tumultuous years that have left many predominantly black communities reeling from a sense the prejudice MLK fought so hard to eradicate still lingers in both race and class.

Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida, the killing of unarmed black men by white officers in Ferguson, Mo., and New York, the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, the growing divide between rich and poor, and the recent release of the movie “Selma,” which depicts MLK’s leadership on the Hollywood silver screen — all of these things have contributed to a renewed sense of purpose for many in Gainesville, across the state and throughout the nation.

“For some, it might heighten the awareness,” said the Rev. Matthew Little, president of the Interdenominational Black Ministers Alliance.

The more than 100 residents marching echoed Little’s comment as they sang spirituals and gospel hymns through the city streets.

There were children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters and best friends singing en masse, the words known by heart.

“We’ve come a long way, Lord, a mighty long way,” the chorus rang out. Then, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round.”

Why are you here today?

“We’re doing this even if nothing had happened in Ferguson,” said Eddie Walker, a kind of elder statesman in the local black community who has marched on MLK Day for nearly 30 years. “But now ... that’s really one (of) the reasons why we have more purpose, because if not, the dream will die.”

T-shirts bearing slogans associated with black men killed by police in the last year — “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up, don’t shoot” — were worn by several individuals. And hand-drawn signs repeated the chants.

For an older generation of African-Americans, the change seen over the years is not change enough.

Progress, they believe, is easily taken for granted. And recent events have only exacerbated this sense of loss.

“It makes me mad,” said Eugene Hendrix, rubbing his long grey-and-black beard. “Where are the Hispanics, where are the Asians, white people, where are the African-Americans?”

There were police. But they provided a motorcade and traffic control, a positive sign given the deterioration of relations between law enforcement and some black communities.

But racial diversity eluded the crowd, only a smattering of white faces noticeable among the marchers.

“They don’t feel the need to be out here,” Walker said. “What need do they have?”

While the lack of contrast in color was evident, so too were economic disparities, a message equally as important to MLK’s cause as racial equality. After all, the civil rights icon was assassinated in Memphis after traveling there to support black sanitation workers on strike.

“We all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged, free-market capitalism for the poor,” MLK once said, inverting the paradigm.

Little said fully addressing the economic component to equality still serves as a call to action.

Doing so could help improve relations between blacks and law enforcement by expanding opportunity and reducing crime, by closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the animosity it breeds on both ends of that burning fuse.

“The problem that is occurring now is not a black problem. It’s a community problem. It’s a city problem. It’s a state and nation problem,” said the Rev. D.T. Jackson. “Regardless of what’s happened in our past or what is happening now ... we must stay the course and continue to keep this dream alive.”

That message is paying off with a younger generation in Gainesville.

High school students Zion Williams and Traybian Harrison said they learned about the civil rights movement at an early age from their parents, watching old footage of MLK deliver his masterful speech championing equality — “I have a dream” — on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

“If it weren’t for (MLK), I don’t think we’d be free right now,” Williams said. “I’ve got to pass (the legacy) on.”


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