New Orleans — Across the metropolitan area Monday, local governments and community groups sponsored parades and other events in honor of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with most events focusing on three themes: celebration, education and service.
The national holiday for King’s birthday is seen by some as a chance to sleep in late after a long weekend. But for others, it’s a chance to remember the sacrifices made by the slain civil rights icon in the pursuit of justice. For them, it is a chance to celebrate his legacy and take stock of the progress toward social justice and setbacks.
Speaking from the steps of City Hall, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for peace in America but noted that could only be achieved through the work of individuals working toward a common goal. Landrieu acknowledged that King would be pleased with the many achievements of African-Americans and other minorities in the decades since his death, like the inauguration of President Barack Obama that also was held on Monday, but King would be appalled at the violence that plagues many cities, particularly among the African-American population
“He would weep — and you know he would — at the carnage we see on the streets of America,” Landrieu told the crowd gathered near Duncan Plaza.
And though the locations and situations surrounding violence in America may differ, the problems are far too familiar, Landrieu said.
“How far in time and space is Sandy Hook from New Orleans? I would say not far at all,” Landrieu said. “You can change a law, but Congress can’t change the hearts and minds of America. That is up to us.”
Joseph Jeanjacques Sr. agreed that it’s the older generations’ responsibility to teach youngsters about the sacrifices made for them.
Jeanjacques came to the parade with his granddaughter, Torrance Taylor, and he said that on the ride over he tried to explain to her a little of what King fought for in America. He shared stories with her of helping to integrate lunch counters at department stores on Canal Street and the danger and push-back he and others faced.
He said everyone has to do their part to keep those memories alive.
“I tell her we’ve gone little farther, but the education has stopped,” Jeanjacques said.
Across the Mississippi River in Algiers, that education continued, as a group of education activists spent the holiday preparing for their trip to Washington, D.C., to discuss inequities before Congress next week.
Karran Harper Royal expressed concern about what she sees as educational “deform” rather than “reform.” Royal cited resource disbursement, the exponential growth of charter schools and the consolidation of quality education into only a few schools as problem areas. She also questioned the unwavering focus on test scores.
“Do we really want our children driven to prepare for a test, or do we want them to be taught to be critical thinkers?” Royal asked.
The group spent the day writing official civil rights complaints and recording the stories of parents.
In Marrero, marchers from local schools and community groups who lined up at L.W. Higgins High School on Lapalco Boulevard for Jefferson Parish’s annual parade also were concerned about where the battle for civil rights is today.
Chavonne Thompson, who works in Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears’ office, said about 2,000 people and 45 groups signed up for the march.
The event passes through several African-American neighborhoods, some of them violence-plagued, before ending at Johnny Jacobs playground in Walkertown.
Louis Birdlow came with the Gretna Civic Association for District 1 for the third straight year. Birdlow brought his daughter and also brought some other young people. He said it’s never too soon for young people to learn about the country’s history.
“They have to learn some time,” he said. “Bring them out, and teach them early.”
Sterling Smith came from Boutte for the event, and he said it’s good for young people to see African-Americans and other working together with unity. He said there has been a lot of progress in America, but there is still a lot more work to do. Parades and marches can help people gain some perspective, he said.
“I think it’s a benefit for the young people to witness everybody working together as one,” Smith said. “Dr. King wasn’t about negative.”
At the Arthur Ashe Charter School off Paris Avenue, volunteers were trying to emulate King’s spirit of service with the construction of a community garden at the school, along with a sports clinic.
The event was put on by City Year New Orleans, a national nonprofit volunteer group.
Peggy Mendoza, the group’s executive director, said the group gathered about 250 volunteers to do work at the school, because it was important people understood that King’s true legacy was service to others.
The group enlarged a community garden at the site and also added benches and artwork.
“Everyone has the ability to serve and give back to the community,” she said. “Instead of taking a day off from work, you put a day on for service.”
Danny Monteverde and Kari Dequine Harden contributed to this story.