For the past 25 years, Bill and Robin Neiheisel of Oakwood have shown their respect for Martin Luther King Jr. in their unique way — carrying a banner in marching to honor the slain civil rights leader.
“We believe in unity of mankind. It was part of King’s dream,” said Bill Neiheisel, who, along with Robin, held a banner that read “Good neighbors come in all colors!” and “We believe in the elimination of all prejudice.”
They were part of the 200 or so like-minded people who marched on Gainesville downtown streets and then — along with many others — filed into the Fair Street School gymnasium for the Newtown Florist Club’s 2014 King Holiday Observance Program, which was filled with songs, dance and motivational speeches.
The march began with participants singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
The music continued at the program, with the singing of the Negro National Anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) and Gainesville High School students belting out songs from “Dreamgirls,” a Broadway musical-turned-movie about the evolution of rhythm and blues.
The youth movement continued with Gainesville and Hall County students sharing excerpts from some of King’s most notable speeches.
The Rev. Kai Horn of Trinity Christian Methodist Episcopal Church shared childhood memories of reading King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and being struck especially by King’s call to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”
The Rev. Rose Johnson, who helped organize the march, recalled the history of the Newtown Florist Club, from providing flowers at funerals to civil and human rights activism. She also reflected on King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
“This moment was felt nationally and here in Gainesville, we too were facing our own civil rights challenges,” she said.
Federal legislation was signed in 1983 creating a federal holiday marking King’s birthday, Jan. 15. The Atlanta native would have turned 85 this year.
Two years after King’s death, the Newtown Florist Club sponsored its first march honoring King. The theme for this year’s holiday observation is “Promises to Keep and Miles to Go Before We Sleep,” a paraphrase of a line from the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Johnson said she hopes “the nonviolent principles of love, freedom, justice and equality for all that Dr. King lived and died for are ideals that continue to define who we are now and for generations to come.”
Several public officials also spoke to the audience.
“Dr. King was a hero among heroes, the leader of a movement that continues to transform America and the world,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “He left a legacy of hope and inspiration that continues today.”
Like other speakers, the Rev. Bill Coates, senior minister of First Baptist Church on Green Street in Gainesville, praised King, but he also painted a dark picture of racism, including from his own family, that existed during King’s era.
“Which is worse: to be the one who hates or being the victim of hate?” he said. “I grew up on the side of people who were the haters. ... I would rather be on your side and be the victim of hate because the one who hates is a victim of evil.”
Coates said he has “great hope” because of King’s legacy.
“When I come into a room of people like you, I have even more hope,” he said. “Martin Luther King is dead, but you are alive. He is in the past, but you are the future.
“My hope is that you will turn away from all the things that will rob your life of joy and dignity ... and that will stop you from ever realizing the dream, that would hold you instead in poverty and fear.”