The first time the Rev. Preston Marshall met Martin Luther King Jr. he thought to himself: “He was a small man.”
But Marshall was quickly smitten with the civil rights leader he met over a pool table while studying music in 1959 at Southern University in Baton Rouge. King stood barely five-feet, seven-inches, but towered in stature. Marshall picked up on the activist’s work and founded the Rev. Martin Luther King Day Parade in Liberty City in 1977.
The parade started small — a couple drummers, dressed-up cars and Poinciana Elementary School’s band — and grew to become a multicultural, all-day tradition in Liberty City and the county’s oldest event honoring King, who was assassinated in 1968.
Marshall, a retired principal at West Miami Middle School and founding professor of Afrocentric Music Education at Florida Memorial University, died Nov. 14 at 79.
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Although his health had begun to fade, the joy of organizing the parade — his life’s work — never waned.
“He thought that was the next best thing to apple pie,” said his wife of 52 years, Margaret Marshall. “When he was in the hospital he kept trying to get up. I said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘I have something to do.’ He never told me what that is but this is the time he would be getting busy getting ready for the parade. … He just loved that parade and thought it was the best thing he could ever do in life.”
Born Sept. 22, 1936, in Overtown, Marshall was a graduate from Booker T. Washington Junior Senior High’s Class of 1955. After Southern University, where he was band director, he earned his master’s at Florida Atlantic University and doctorate at Arizona State University.
“His mother died when he was young and he was in and out with his father so he had to do a lot of stuff on his own,” his wife said. “He knew how to get it done and instilled that in our kids — ‘You gotta get up and do what you have to do.’ He grew up tough but he always had to fight for himself.”
We’ve come a long way in 50 years. There is now opportunity to live the American Dream — almost. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do.
The Rev. Preston Marshall, in a 2014 Miami Herald article on the 37th annual MLK Parade he founded in Liberty City.
Part of that passion was for education. He was a 40-year administrator for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, a social science and black history professor at Miami Dade College and director of Teacher Corps of Florida International University. Marshall was chaplain for the Opa-locka Police Department and the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
Marshall was one of the first principals for the school system’s Community Education Vocational Education Program, which helped high school dropouts and adults. A Miami native of Bahamian heritage, he established the GED and vocational curriculum for Hispanic and Caribbean immigrants.
In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan appointed Marshall to the Founding Committee to establish King’s birthday as a national holiday, a movement that became official in 1983.
“I wanted to do something to honor him. Since I was a band person, a parade seemed like the most natural thing to do,” Marshall told the Miami Herald in 2014.
“Dr. Marshall leaves an amazing legacy as he dedicated his entire life to the fight for equality and fairness for all, and the education of our youth and adults,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Jean Monestime said in a statement. The community “enjoys a better life today because of his efforts.”
In addition to his wife, Marshall is survived by children Preston III and Tanya Marshall and Jasmine Moore; and grandchildren Dr. Jamal Marshall and Gary Christopher Mitchell. A viewing will be at 5-9 p.m. Friday and services at 11 a.m. Saturday, both at Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church, 5946 NW 12th Ave., Miami.