By Alexandra R. Lajoux
Yesterday in Fernandina Beach, our community hosted the biggest local parade ever in honor of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Celebratory walkers, scooters, cyclists, skaters, and dance groups moved along to the tunes of the Fernandina Beach High School marching band, leading more than 100 cars representing local churches, charities, clubs, and other local organizations, followed by a retinue of motorcyclists.
Billie McCray’s famed MLK quilt was on display and Dr. King’s speeches rang through the air. The group processed from the Peck Center to downtown Fernandina Beach and back. The theme was “Together we can be the dream.”
The parade, led by Parade Marshal Jackie McGowen and Parade Grand Marshal Len Kreger, was a picture of unity, with all ages, races, and walks of life represented—from infants to longtime residents in their late 80s. The event was organized by a six-member parade committee headed by Rev. Patricia Thompson, lifelong Fernandina Beach resident and former vice mayor of the city.
The road to this honorific occasion was long and stony.
On April 8, 1968, four days after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Rep. Jon Conyers of Michigan introduced a motion on the floor of Congress to declare Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. Sadly, it would take another 15 years for Congress to make it happen. The King Holiday Bill was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring the first official observance to be the third Monday of April 1986.
The Florida delegation voted yes for the holiday, and the governor of Florida recognized it as such soon thereafter. But unlike the Sunshine State, some resisted honoring the great civil rights hero in this manner. It would take another 17 years before every state recognized the holiday.
One of the liveliest communities in Florida to support the holiday early on was Fernandina Beach, whose residents first marched on Jan. 15, 1978.
Rev. Patricia Thompson recalls the day. “Three brave young Black men marched: Leroy Tyler, William Simpson, and David White. I was standing on the corner of 11th and Elm watching, but afraid of retaliation if I joined.”
Within two years the parade was established as a permanent custom. The local branch of the NAACP, along with the Nassau Christian Leadership Conference, volunteered to organize the parade, also supported by Elm Street Sportsman Association. The parade has grown in size and inclusiveness from 1980 to this happy day, when our community marched proudly and without fear in what we are proud to call the 45th annual parade in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Alexandra R. Lajoux, a resident in Fernandina Beach since April 2017, volunteers for several local organizations, including AMP’s Senior Theatre Project, the Fourth Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program, the Nassau Racial Equality Coalition, and St. Michael’s Catholic Church.