Despite an early downpour of snow, Acen Phillips made his way to the head of Denver’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Marade on Monday as the Baptist bishop does each year.
Phillips marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s. For him, revisiting King’s civil rights leadership is a powerful reminder of past struggles as well as how far African-Americans still have to go for equality.
Monday’s marade is especially important for Phillips and others because of the divisive president-elect’s imminent inauguration, what appears to be a growing sentiment of intolerance and other issues facing African-Americans in 2017.
“This is a critical point,” Phillips said. “When you look at where we are nationally, we’ve got a burden that’s coming on our country.”
Many in attendance Monday shared Phillips’ sense that they were drawing new moral power from King’s legacy, but the importance of the marade — simultaneous parade and march — was ultimately interpreted differently by each of the attendees.
For Jamie Laurie, better known as Flobots’ Jonny 5, the event was especially relevant because of Donald Trump’s recent electiont to president.
“There is a need for a larger sense of unity than there has been in the past,” Laurie said. “It’s an important day to practice our power and practice our unity.”
“It’s something that will come to be needed in the coming months,” he said.
Andre Stott, president of the local chapter of the African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, said the annual marade is always an important reminder of issues facing blacks in America regardless of who is president.
“Even if it had been Hillary Clinton who came in,” he said, “we’d hold her to the fire too.”
For some in the crowd, the event was less a moment to protest national politics and more a painful reminder of more localized rifts with Denver’s elected officials.
“After last year,” said Denver activist Candi CdeBaca, remembering the points made by Black Lives Matter protesters during the 2016 marade, “It became very clear that we have no real representation here. People stayed home today. They made that choice to make a statement.”
CdeBaca saw the event as an opportunity to stand for social justice on her own terms. She and others marched in a group under signs protesting the city’s Interstate 70 renovation project and gentrification in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.
It seemed that each marcher felt they were channeling Martin Luther King Jr.’s mission in their own way. Though interpretations of his unifying message took different forms, it seemed that everyone shared a vision of hope.
“I’m here to make sure my spirit is reborn,” said J.J. Niemann, who has been attending the marade since he was 9.
To Wilma Webb, the marade’s founder and wife of former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, the march has always embodied a changing nature.
“Each of the King holidays has focused and centered on the problems that we were faced with at the time that the holiday occured. We’ve dealt with young people and drug abuse. We dealt with families. We dealt with peace,” she said. “Each one has its own individuality in terms of what we should be doing.”
For Bishop Phillips, the annual remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is ultimately one more installment in the long-fought war for equality.
“When we come out here today in this snow storm, to me, it’s almost like starting over,” he said, “We’re gonna keep marching until we get the victory we know we deserve.”