Jacksonville’s plans this year to honor Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 89 Monday, will expand to remember the 50th anniversary of his death.
“This will be the first commemorative activity for the 50th year of his assassination and sets the stage for a series of events that will run through Black History Month and culminate on April 4, the 50th anniversary of his assassination,” said Gary Thomas, president of the city’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation.
“It should be grander,” Thomas said. “In our meetings we reminded parade participants that their entries should really reflect the fact that we are in the 50th year of his untimely death. It is not a funeral dirge. It is a celebration, but at the same time we should also reflect it a bit differently.”
Jacksonville’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade was started by a handful of residents in 1981 with a boom box for music. It became an official event in 1988 when the foundation created it and other events to honor him, including candlelight vigils, diversity workshops and volunteer awards banquets.
But this year’s King Day events will “apply some added significance” to the upcoming anniversary, starting with the parade builty around the theme of “The Color of Unity,” Thomas said.
King was a well-known church pastor when he was named president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had been formed to help lead the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was known for his nonviolent civil protests that led to his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965. He was assassinated by gunman James Earl Ray as he prepared to lead a protest in sympathy with striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tenn.
President Ronald Reagan declared the third Monday of January as a national memorial for King in 1983, since it was close to the civil rights leader’s Jan. 15 birthday.
Monday’s events begin with a 7:30 a.m. wreath-laying ceremony at Hemming Park at 135 W. Monroe St., the third year the foundation has done this on King’s birthday. Then at 10 a.m. the annual parade begins at EverBank Field’s Parking Lot E and heads three miles away to the Prime Osborn Convention Center. Thomas said the parade has grown in spectator and participant numbers, with 188 entrants registered as of last week.
The newest element is the Holiday Festival and Arts Market at Hemming Park. Thomas said the foundation has planned post-parade events in years past, but the market was envisioned as a new way to keep the community involved in the tribute.
“We have a big parade every year, but we lose 90 percent of the onlookers and participants after it,” Thomas said. “We have not been able to attract enough people to take part in the festivities after. So we thought one way to incentivize more people to join would be to have a platform such as the arts market.”
A ceremony at the market will honor the Raines High School football team, which won a state championship, the first for a Duval County public high school since 1997.
For information on Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, go to mlkfdnorg.com.
Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549