Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.: Savannahians pack streets for return of parade

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Savannah’s beloved Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade marched back in full force on Monday morning. The parade, one of the largest Martin Luther King Jr. day celebrations in the U.S., was shut down for the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s return on the day following the late civil rights leader’s 94th birthday marked a momentous occasion for regular parade-goers and its organizers.

More than 250 groups and performers walked in this year’s celebrations. The route began at Liberty and East Broad Street, traveled up to Broughton, moved west to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, then ended at Anderson Street.

The number of parade participants exceeded expectations, according to a volunteer with the MLK Observance Day Association, the group that has organized the event for the last 43 years.

Carolyn Blackshear, who was MLK Observance Day Association’s president up until last year, served as one of the grand marshals alongside Georgia House Rep. Carl Gilliard (D-Savannah, District 162).

“Throughout the year, we celebrate the oneness that he promoted … he left a blueprint for us to follow,” said Blackshear, who helmed the association for 13 years.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

The smell of barbecue hung in the crisp morning air over the crowd gathered along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The Sol C. Johnson High School marching band led the procession. The brass and drums coaxed many young children to peek from behind barricades, while older kids climbed onto a fence to get a better look.

Behind the band, gymnasts flipped and cartwheeled, while roller skaters showed off their dance moves.

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Every year, cities across the nation celebrate King's legacy. He dedicated his life to the civil rights movement, pushing for equality and desegregation through nonviolent protests. His work played pivotal role in the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping piece of legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

“King was 39 years old when he died and I’ve been doing this for 39 years,” said Gilliard, drawing a parallel to his work as a civic leader.

Credit: Nancy Guan / Savannah Morning News

Credit: Nancy Guan / Savannah Morning News

Gilliard, who grew up in Savannah, recalls when the South was going through a period of integration after legal segregation had ended. While he went to school alongside students of all races and ethnicities, feelings and beliefs were slow to change, said Gilliard. He remembers being told to walk in the back door of restaurants in Downtown Savannah.

“And I tell my kids all the time, ‘now I can,’” recounts Gilliard.

Though Gilliard said he grew up in the post-civil rights era, King’s lasting legacy had a heavy influence on his own work in the community. In college, Gilliard remembers listening to recordings of King’s “I have a Dream Speech” delivered in Washington D.C. in 1963.

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The state representative was just elected chair of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, the largest caucus of Black legislators in the nation.

Up and down the route, individuals and families cheered on as the parade floated by. A group of high school and middle school students sang and danced on corner of MLK Boulevard and Liberty as the Sol. C. Johnson High School Band drummed a beat. A group of elders bobbed their heads as a man on roller skates glided under the I-16 overpass.

Frank Kearse, a former NFL defensive, was watching the parade for the first time in 16 years. Kearse, who grew up in Savannah, attended past celebrations, but, this time, he sat with a family of his own.

“They don’t celebrate like Savannah in other cities in this country,” said Kearse.

The former football player grew nostalgic as he recalled watching the parade on Broughton as a kid.

“I think I was more excited than the kids today,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.: Savannahians pack streets for return of parade


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