Denver’s Martin Luther King Jr. Marade struggles again to make ends meet

A car accident that badly injured Marade chair Vern Howard has been a major setback to the organization still recovering from lost sponsors last year.
4 min. read
The Martin Luther King Jr. statue in City Park, Jan. 16, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Martin Luther King Jr. Marade Chair Vern Howard speaks as the procession fills Civic Center Park. Jan. 16, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The city's annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, the Marade, is still working to fill a $67,000 loss following Black Lives Matter protests that interrupted the event in 2016. Their efforts have been stymied further since their lead organizer, Vern Howard, was in a serious car accident last September; he's had to relinquish some responsibilities as he recovers from brain injuries.

A quick recap:

The event began as acts of civil disobedience in the '80s. Activists marched as they attempted to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Colorado. The effort was led in part by Wilma Webb, a member of the Colorado State Legislature (and also the spouse of Denver Mayor Wellington Webb). Webb sponsored the bill to make MLK Jr. Day a Colorado state holiday. She's also is credited with the name, "Marade," which is a combination of "march" and "parade." It signifies that the community is supposed to walk in together in solidarity as part of the event.

It's grown considerably since its founding; organizers claim it's one of the largest MLK Jr. Day events in the U.S.

In 2016, following Michael Marshall's death in police custody, the Marade was taken over by activists from Black Lives Matter 5280 who used the opportunity to demand the release of video evidence of Marshall's death. Their outrage caused a handful of sponsors to pull out in 2017; one did so just days before the event. As a result, Howard had to pass a donation bucket for the first time in the event's history.

Black Lives Matter 5280 activist Amy E. Emery-Brown speaks at a podium meant for Marade programming on Jan. 18, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty)
Another tough year

There's potentially another first occurring at the Marade in 2018: Vern Howard might be absent. Howard suffered a crippling concussion from his accident, and he told Denverite that his doctor recommended he avoid large crowds.

He's still hoping to attend, but only, he said, "If the good Lord be willing and the creeks don’t rise."

Howard said the organization has "by no means" made a dent in the deficit left by Black Lives Matter 5280's intervention two years ago. His inability to work as hard as he has in past years, he said, is not making matters easier.

His vice chair, Christian Steward, told Denverite that the march itself requires about $100,000 in cash or in-kind support. The organization overall runs on a half a million dollars each year. Most of this money is earmarked for scholarships, leadership training and charity drives in cities all over Colorado. Their year round activity has expanded far beyond the January march.

Steward said the organization still needs to raise a majority of their bottom line for the Marade in January and $300,000 for the rest of the year.

"We have some way to go," he said.

Bishop Acen Phillips bows his head during a prayer before the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Marade. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

While the Marade commissioners are still going after corporate sponsors, Steward said he hopes the community will continue to support their efforts. Organizers will be passing their donation bucket for the second year in a row, Howard said.

Despite their uphill funding battle, both Steward and Howard expressed optimism that the event's future is secure.

"It's a beautiful thing, the legacy Dr. Martin Luther King has left," Steward said. Now and in the future, he said, "his name alone will draw people and companies in."

Howard, who has not yet missed a Marade, remembers those first years when it was just a group of activists marching for the right to march. If the group ever lost the ability to pay for hot chocolate or scholarships, he said, they could always assemble without a budget as they did in the 80s.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Marade begins. Jan. 16, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

If you want to support their efforts, Steward said the group needs cash or in-kind donations and volunteers. You can find more information on their website.

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