MLK Jr. Parade Is a First Coast Tradition

Posted on 01/21/20 by Dave Bruns

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Jacksonville, Fla. – The Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Jacksonville has become a First Coast icon. Thousands of people turn out for the celebration and associated festivities after the parade, sometimes braving the cold temperatures that can hit North Florida in January.

The parade has been popular in Jacksonville for decades. But few of those attending may realize that the Jacksonville celebration started off as a class project in 1981, several years before Congress finally passed a measure creating the national holiday in 1983.

“It germinated actually from a junior college class assignment,” says Gary Thomas, 69. Thomas now serves as president of the non-profit organization that oversees the parade, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation, Inc. Now retired, Thomas had a long career in risk management, working in major Jacksonville area employers such as the Prudential, CSX and Winn-Dixie.

Beaulah Flournoy, a professor at what is now Florida State College in Jacksonville, assigned her students to publicly honor the life and contributions of Dr. King, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a towering figure in the Civil Rights Movement. King was assassinated in 1968 while helping to support a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis.

“It wasn’t much of a parade at first,” Thomas said. “They marched around campus with placards. No music, no bands – but they marched.”

There was no similar class assignment the next year, but a college administrator, Richard Wilson, didn’t want to let the memorial go unmarked. Wilson pulled together an ad hoc committee of community members. That parade was a little bigger and better organized. The following year, there was another parade, and then another and another.

By 1988, the group was organized as a federally recognized 501c3 nonprofit organization, and was chartered by the state as a nonprofit corporation the following year. Since then, the organization has continued to attract community support and engagement. AARP Jacksonville is a sponsor of the organization’s work in 2020.

Thomas has remained active in the group since its formation. Two others who took part in the original founding group, Andre Neal and Wilson, also are still active.

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Thomas never met Martin Luther King Jr. He was a senior in high school the year that King was assassinated in Memphis. But he found King’s message inspiring then, and with many others, he continues to spread the message today.

To many Americans today, King is a distant, mythic figure, Thomas says. “Dr. King was sanitized. Most people, the most they know about Dr. King is that in August of 1963 he gave a speech in Washington, D.C.” The group continues to work to raise awareness of what Thomas calls “the real life and legacy of Dr. King and not just the Dr. King who’s been frozen in time.”

“We offer a platform to honor not just Dr. King, but all people who espouse the philosophy of cooperation, nonviolence, peace, brotherhood and trying to love your neighbor. We love to talk about people who make sacrifices for each other. And of course, Dr. King paid the ultimate price.”

It’s still a vision that remains revolutionary, Thomas says. “It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

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