Thousands Turn Out for Martin Luther King Day Celebration in Phoenix

From Girl Scouts and college students to local elected officials and community leaders, thousands celebrated the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. today in downtown Phoenix.

The festivities began with a march from Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church to Margaret T. Hance Park, during which men, women, and children carried signs and banners, sang songs, and discussed current affairs and the legacy of MLK.

“Never forget that we were the only state that had to march and march and march to get this day as a holiday,” state Senator Leah Landrum Taylor told the crowd.

“Never forget that we were the only state that had to vote to get this day as a holiday. Never forget this history.”

While President Ronald Reagan made MLK day a federal holiday in 1983, Arizona has had a tricky relationship with MLK day over the years: After the Legislature failed to pass a measure making it a paid holiday in 1986, former Governor Bruce Babbitt declared it such with an executive order, only to have that measure deemed illegal by the next governor, Evan Mecham.

The battle to get MLK Day in Arizona continued for years, and it wasn’t until the vote was finally put to the people with Proposition 300 in November 1992 that the state joined the rest of the country in celebrating the father of the American Civil Rights Movement.
Throughout the march, snippets of conversation about this difficult process could be heard, as could mentions of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and all the progress it’s made in advancing a conversation about race in the country.

As the procession of marchers moved through downtown Phoenix, the city temporally shut down streets and blocked traffic. Onlookers waved or shouted in support, and even the city’s police officers joined in the merriment, high-fiving the occasional marcher.

When the spirited group arrived at Margaret T. Hance park, it was greeted by another few hundred people. As kids played in the grass, many adults gathered near the stage to listen to their elected officials speak about King’s legacy.

“When I think about the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there’s one sentence that comes to mind, one quote that is so powerful,” Representative Reginald Bolding said.

“He said, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’”
King “taught us that we need to act, not be observers on the sidelines of injustices. When we see things that need to be improved in our community and our society – jump in, speak up,” Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said. “Let’s live the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King every day of the year.”

Congressman Ruben Gallego spoke next, talking about the importance of fighting against intolerance and injustice by voting in the upcoming election:

“We’re entering a really hard time in our country. We have politicians talking about Muslims in this country as if they’re not American citizens, trying to make more discord among our friends and families, trying to separate us from each other.

“The most important thing we can do this year when all the politicians are talking about hate [is show] that we actually love each other and we’re not going to be afraid of each other.”

Other speakers, like state Representative Ken Clarke, talked about the prevalence of voter-suppression efforts in the Arizona Legislature, saying it's time to “educate, get active, and unite” against that movement. 
But perhaps the most lively speaker was Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski: “Can you feel the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. right here in Phoenix, Arizona?” he asked, soliciting a raucous applause.

“You know, it’s so important that we keep the legacy of this great man, this great American hero, alive,” he said.

“And not just today, but every day.” 
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser