On one of the coldest mornings of the year, thousands of men and women, young and old, braved a cold north wind and temperatures barely above freezing. They bundled up their children and grandchildren, pushing the little ones in strollers. For many, Monday, January 15 was a day off work or school, but that didn’t stop them from gathering as early as 7:00 a.m. to join in Ocala’s annual MLK March. As marchers lined up on Broadway Street, the beat of the drums and cymbals from Vanguard High School gave the gathering a parade-like feeling.
“You might have a day off, but take it as a day on,” said Ire Bethea, Chair of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission, the group of volunteers that organizes the event. He called the annual march “a celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. King.”
According to the commission, around 3,000 people, including nearly 50 church and school groups, carried banners with sayings like “Keep the Dream Alive” and marched the mile from the Downtown Square to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Complex on West State Road 40, where they were met with the mouthwatering aromas of barbecue and carnival food vendors’ fried fare.
Bethea estimated that a total of around 6,000 people participated throughout the Day in the Park event, which featured six hours of entertainment by a lineup of locals including musicians Selwyn Birchwood Band, Samp Da Champ, and D-Nice, jazz bands from Lake Weir and West Port High Schools, and performers like the Marching Majorettes. The events on MLK Day are the culmination of a week of activities sponsored by the commission, including a youth day, prayer breakfast, ecumenical church service and wreath ceremony.
“I’ve done the march every year since I was hired,” said Sherriff Billy Woods. “An event like this is what makes our community so great. Everybody is here, it doesn’t make a difference what race or ethnicity. This community is the greatest.”
Dr. Jim Henningsen, President of the College of Central Florida, marched with the school’s men’s basketball team. “We value diversity and inclusiveness, and are trying to help educate the world about reducing discrimination and making sure we have equality for everyone,” he said. “The vision of Dr. King is amazing and we’ve got to keep that message going forward.”
Marion County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Heidi Mayer was proud to see so many young people participating. “This event shows what proactive, positive leadership does,” she said. “By remaining calm, civil, yet passionate and informed, look what you can do — you can change the course of history. Today is so important. You had a man who would not respond to hatefulness but would continue loving people and trying to show them his point of view and it worked. This is a message that we have to carry on every day.”
Esther Johnson, who comes from Fort McCoy every year with her group from Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, said the importance of the event for her is also tied to love.
“It gives us an opportunity to show love to all mankind,” she said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination and the 55th anniversary of his March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.