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Youth lead the way at MLK march in Gainesville
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Participants in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday march make their way along EE Butler Parkway Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, on route to Fair Street School.

As hundreds of residents from across Hall County marched together during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. rally in Gainesville on Monday, Jan. 21, one subset of the group stood out: the youth.

March organizers and local community activists agreed that more young people than ever participated in this year’s celebration of the life and legacy of MLK.

“We’re in this transition,” said Ron Sheats, vice president of the Newtown Florist Club, a Gainesville civil rights organization that coordinates the annual march, observance program and other commemorative and educational events. “We’re depending on them to reach out and step up.”

Sheats said he sees a promising future in today’s youth.

Elementary, middle and high school students participated in the rally, led through the streets of downtown Gainesville by the Johnson High School marching band.

For 2019, the holiday theme was “Stand up! Speak up! Be active and Participate!”

Aniyah Norman, a senior at Johnson High who co-chaired the holiday committee that designed the day’s events, said she sees the effort resonating with her peers.

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St. John Baptist Church pastor Robert S. King leads a prayer Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, as the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday march begins at the EE Butler Parkway church. - photo by Scott Rogers

“It was definitely difficult,” Norman said about putting together the march and other MLK programs, especially while she’s applying for college and scholarships at the same time. “We put a lot of work into it.”

Norman said the importance of their work wasn’t obvious to some of her peers at first. But in time that began to transform.

“Communicating with everyone was a really eye-opening experience,” Norman said. “We’ve included so many young people in this experience. I think it really changed our perspectives. I just appreciate the opportunity I was given.”

It certainly rubbed off on Trenton Jackson, who attends Gainesville High School.

Jackson said he wasn’t interested in sleeping in on the day off from school. His motivation lay elsewhere.

“It’s just something different,” Jackson said of the march and corresponding holiday events. “I just want to show thankfulness to Martin Luther King for all the struggles he had to go through to get the freedoms we have now – and still we’re fighting. When this is all over, we can all say that he would be happy with us.”

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The Johnson High marching band participates in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. march Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, through Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Stephen Samuel, pastor at St. John Baptist, which hosted the King Day observance program and where the march set out from, marveled at the youth participation.

“It’s great to see a new generation rise up and actually be excited about it,” he said. “To see them take it to another level, it’s great.”

Frank Medina, pastor of the Restoration Community Church in Gainesville, said he was excited to see a growing level of participation among Latino youth.

“Martin Luther King, what he had done, still affects us today in so many ways,” Medina said. “But it’s a blessing that goes beyond the African-American community.”

Medina said Latinos and immigrants had benefited from MLK’s work, too.

“We have to step up and be a part of this day,” he added. “The spirit of Martin Luther King lives on in our community.”

Ray Whelchel marched with his daughter, Jada, who attends East Hall Middle. It was a special day for him as he passed the torch.

“This was a part of my childhood,” Whelchel said, adding that his father marched and his grandmother was a member of the Florist Club. “I want my child to know what it means. So, it’s like a legacy.”

Jada said the time spent with her father marching for the cause of equality meant a lot to her.

“The fact that it’s such a powerful thing is really important,” Jada said.

When asked what she would tell her friends and peers about why they should get involved, too, Jada said, “You can get a sense of unity in it. You’re not alone in what you stand for.”