The founders of the Rev. Martin Luther King Day Parade in Liberty City remember those early years well.
It was 1977 and the parade barely got off the ground.
“It was so short,” said Cheryal White, who has worked with parade founder Preston Marshall since the inception. “We had some Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, some drummers and a few fancy cars and one band — from Poinciana Elementary School —and a police van leading. The route was down one lane of Northwest 62nd Street and up the other lane. That was it. I remember hearing one spectator saying, ‘That’s it?’ as the parade came to an abrupt end.”
Alexis Glass, 42, who was the drum majorette for the Poinciana Park Elementary School Band, recalled how White’s son Dankeith Flanders, then 5, played drums in the band.
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“He was the littlest one on the drums,” she said. “It was too funny.”
“But it was a start,” said Marshall proudly, noting the Liberty City parade is the oldest in the county.
Although Marshall had no way of knowing it back then, the dream for the parade was born in 1959. Marshall was studying at Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he first met King.
Born in Overtown, Marshall was raised by his grandparents. He is a graduate of Booker T. Washington Junior Senior High, (class of 1955), where he was a proud member of the school’s “Marching 100,” the school’s band.
Marshall, who has a doctorate in education from Arizona State University, is a retired community school principal at West Miami Middle School. He is an ordained minister, a member of the International Police Chaplains and has served as head of the Tri-City Community Association, a job skill center. He also has been a professor of social science and black history for Miami Dade College and was a founding professor of Afrocentric Music Education at Florida Memorial University.
Marshall said he was inspired by the late M. Athalie Range, who pushed for the parade after Northwest 62nd Street was named Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard in 1981.
But the 1980s were troubling times for Miami, a city then plagued with racial tension and riots, making it difficult to get people to come into the black neighborhoods.
Marshall remembered that some people wanted to move the parade downtown to Biscayne Boulevard. “I fought to keep the parade in the black community,” he said.
When Martin Luther King Jr. Day was designated a national holiday in 1983, Marshall said support for the parade and festivities started to come in from Dade County and other sources.
“One year, we even brought down Florida A&M University’s band to participate. I don’t remember how I got them here ... but back then, people were eager to help out.”
Marshall, 76, was just getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement when he first met King at Southern University.
“It was 1959, and I’d just met Rap Brown, who inspired me to get involved in the movement,” Marshall said. “I joined other students from the school and we held sit-ins at the lunch counters of the local Woolworth’s and other five-and-dime department stores.”
Later, he met King when the Civil Rights icon visited his college campus. “That was in 1959, and he came to the student union, where he played pool with some of us and just sat around talking with us. I remember thinking that he was a small man.”
At the time, Marshall played trumpet in the college band. Before King left the campus, an assembly was held in his honor.
“At the assembly, Dr. King asked the band to play Amazing Grace,” said Marshall, who said he was “smitten” by King from that day. He said he saw that King had a way with words and moved among the great and small with ease.
After he graduated from college, Marshall got a teaching job in Bunnell, near Flagler Beach in northern Florida. While there, he learned of a demonstration in St. Augustine led by King and joined in.
“That same year, I drove to Tallahassee to join the march there,’’ he said.
And when he studied for his master’s degree, Marshall studied the life and philosophy of King. “The more I learned about Dr. King, the closer I got to him.”
So, on that fateful day in 1968, when King was killed, Marshall said, “I wanted to do something to honor him. Since I was a band person, a parade seemed like the most natural thing to do.”
Now, 37 years after the first parade, the MLK Parade and Festival has become an all-day, multicultural tradition in the Liberty City community, culminating at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park. It draws bands from schools and colleges throughout the state and elsewhere. This year, the lineup will include 15 elementary, middle and high school bands and two college bands — one from the Bahamas, another from Jamaica.
“And get this,” Marshall said, “our Grand Marshall will be the entire football team from Booker T. Washington High School, the No.1 high school football (team) in the nation!”
Over the years, Marshall has not only organized the parade, but also a MLK banquet and breakfast, with the proceeds from the events funding scholarships. He also helped to get the street named after King as well as a post office.
While the parade is still close to his heart, Marshall said he is trying to train younger people to take over “the mammoth job.”
About two years ago, he was talking about giving up the parade idea, said White, his longtime friend. “Then, he said, ‘Let’s do it one more time.’ ”