Four generations of one Miami family celebrated the life of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday as a parade in his honor rolled down Northwest 54th Street to the beat of marching bands and gospel singers.
King would have been pleased to see how his national holiday played out in Liberty City. The smell of conch fritters and barbecued chicken filled the air. All the top politicians, law enforcement chiefs, church elders and school leaders marched and waved. Black people and white people lined the route in a peaceful tribute to the civil rights activist and minister who led the struggle for racial equality in a divided nation by preaching nonviolent protest.
“Martin Luther King had a dream that all black kids and white kids could be friends,” said Taniyah Pommells, 9.
“He wanted us to hold hands,” said Pommells’ cousin, Edward Williams, 7. “And put aside our differences.”
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“He was a great citizen who said everybody should have a chance to do what they want to do in their lives,” said Alaysia Pommells, 11, who is Taniyah’s sister.
Her voice was quickly drowned out by the Northwestern High School band dancing by in blue and yellow uniforms – and it’s not easy to dance while puffing on a tuba wrapped around your torso.
Then came a column and busload of Northwestern High football players and loud cheers for the 2018 state champions who added to the school’s winning tradition.
“They’re like the New England Patriots of high school football,” said County Commissioner Esteban Bovo as he broke parade ranks to shake the hands of Bulls supporters.
It was a day of pride for the community and for King, who would have had his 90th birthday on Jan. 15. His extraordinary life was cut short by assassin James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King had gone to support black public works employees on strike. The night before he was shot he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He was 39 years old.
Theresa Summerset, grandmother of the Pommells girls, recalled the morning after King’s death. Riots had broken out in cities across the country.
“My mother worked in Overtown at the Prince Cafe and the windows of her car had been busted out, so my brother and I had to get down on the floor as she drove us to daycare because everybody was throwing rocks,” said Summerset, 58, a Central High graduate. “I was small but I remember people talking, crying, arguing, mourning.
“Since that day we’ve made progress. We have lots of interracial families now. But we still have a long way to go. I tell my children and grandchildren to treat everybody as you would want to be treated. That’s the only way things will get better.”
Summerset’s mother, Dolores, 80, attends the parade every year. She recalled seeing King once in Miami.
“He was a man of honor who had a lot of hope for the future,” she said.
Summerset’s daughter, Tay Miller, 39, said she was grateful to King for his efforts to end segregation.
“I went to predominately white North Miami Beach High, and because of him I was afforded that right and I felt welcome,” Miller said. “Because of Dr. King and Harriet Tubman we have rights we might have been denied. He was a spiritual man, too, and we live by faith. I teach my kids to be courageous like him, hold their heads up high when they walk into a room and never let go of your self-esteem.”
Even as the majorettes and motorcyclists and fire trucks paraded down the street, it was a day of reflection. A day of determination to continue King’s work. A day to weigh progress and regression. A day of hope. King was beaten, threatened, humiliated, jailed, spied upon by his own government. He confronted American hate in the flesh. But he never gave up hope.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” King said in his famous speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963.
Dennis Mitchell Sr. is hopeful. He watched his granddaughter perform in a dance troupe in the parade. He said King’s message is more vital than ever.
“We have not yet accomplished what Martin dreamt of, which is true brotherhood and love for one another,” Mitchell said. “I see steps forward and steps back. Our youth – they are killing each other because they don’t know how to reason and talk about their problems. But this parade has improved. It used to come down 62nd Avenue and there was violence and shooting in the past. Now it’s calm and beautiful.”
As employees from the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s office strode by chanting, “Know your rights!” James Smith remembered when he heard King speak in Atlanta in the 1960s. He remembered what it was like in the Jim Crow South.
“I always had to use the back door,” said Smith, 72. “I couldn’t try on clothes in the stores. I couldn’t drink Coca-Cola. My schools were all black, no whites.
“Well, I can go anywhere now. But I just have to hope I don’t get stopped by the police. That’s why we still need Dr. King.”
King’s dream, that his four children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” remains unfulfilled but is within reach, said Shirley Small, 70, who used to have to go to the back of the bus.
“I ain’t going to lie, things have not changed very much,” said Small, who grew up in Coconut Grove. “We’ve got killing every day in our neighborhoods. We’ve got a vindictive President Trump who, if he was black, would have been removed from office already.
“Everyone is getting along a little bit better, despite him. And we’ve got this holiday! I personally don’t care for Halloween. Easter is nice. But King Day is really our country’s most important day of the year.”