Mixed Messages for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Denver's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Marade (March + Parade) is usually one of the largest King parades in the country. But the festivities, and the way King's message is presented, has generated debate from people who believe the holiday needs to be less of an exercise in platitudes and more of a call to action on bigger issues.

For the second year in a row, a group of activists, under the banner of the People's March, will underline this point by meeting at a separate starting point and joining Monday's Marade later as it makes its way to Civic Center Park.

The official Marade, organized by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission and supported by Mayor Hickenlooper and others, will begin today at 8:30 a.m. at the MLK monument in City Park and march to Civic Center Park, where Dr. Stephen Jordan, President of the Metropolitan State College of Denver, will give the keynote address. The motto is "You can kill the dreamer, but never the dream."

The protestors, meanwhile, will hear from African-American, Hispanic, Native American and other speakers on the war in Iraq, the Jena 6 case in Louisiana, illegal immigration, the gentrification of black and Latino neighborhoods, the mortgage foreclosure crisis and other issues that they contend are more in keeping with King's tradition of struggle. They will carry "Anti-War" and "Anti-Racism" signs.

"Last year, once we arrived at Civic Center Park, we were able to engage many people in dialogue about our criticisms of MLK Day activities," says Larry Hales, a People's March organizer and outspoken Denver activist who has also participated in protests of the Columbus Day parade and plans to do the same during the Democratic National Convention this August.

Hales points out that in the last couple of years of his life, King connected the money spent on the build-up of the Vietnam War to a loss of funding to rehabilitate poor neighborhoods in America. "We are in a similar situation now with the Iraq war and the cutbacks in education and healthcare," Hales adds.

The Marade theme this year is education, and the holiday commission plans to hand out $80,000 to $100,000 in scholarships to high school seniors and adults, says commission co-founder Vern Howard. The event and activities together will cost about $500,000, much of which is donated by corporate sponsors like State Farm Insurance.

Hales isn't opposed to scholarships, but says MLK Day could also be used to criticize the high cost of education and to point out that there are more young black men in prison than in college. He also objects to the notion of corporate sponsorships.

The People's March is part of the National MLK March Against Racism Coalition, which will mount similar events in New York City, San Diego and Atlanta.

Howard believes the People's March is an attempt to undermine a "positive and productive tradition" and says numerous social themes have been addressed in the last 22 years of the MLK Day activities in Colorado, including poverty, education, health and the incarceration rate for black men. Last week, he adds, King's son, Martin Luther King III, discussed his father's anti-war work and his principles of peace in relation to the war in Iraq during a speech at the University of Denver. And last year, King's nephew, Dr. Derrick King, was the keynote speaker for the Marade and "spent considerable time talking in opposition to the war and its negative impact on domestic issues." -- Annette Walker

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes