In honor of the legacy and mission of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Central Florida community gathered at the 35th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Parade Saturday in downtown Orlando.
Alex Lewis, a community activist with the Southwest Orlando Jaycees, a civic leadership organization in Orlando that helped plan the event, said the parade attracted close to 1,000 attendees this year.
Dozens of local organizations participated in the parade including Universal Studios, YMCA and members of local government such as Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and state Rep. Anna Eskamani.
People either marched on foot or rode on adorned floats down Orange Avenue smiling, waving and handing out candy to the crowd.
Lewis said the parade brings people from across the Central Florida community together, embodying Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of inclusion.
“It’s all about engagement with the community,” Lewis said. “This type of parade is an event where everybody comes together.”
Student organizations from UCF—including the Multicultural Student Center, LEAD Scholars Academy and Volunteer UCF—have worked together the past few years to provide an avenue for students to attend the parade by providing transportation downtown, said Oluwapelumi Owoade, student director of MSC.
“We give them access to participate, and I believe it allows students to see themselves represented by UCF in general,” Owoade said.
After hearing how much fun her friends had at the parade last year, Rabia Zubair, sophomore mechanical engineering major, said she decided to attend the annual event to show her support.
Zubair said the parade was an opportunity to interact with the community and represent her school.
“We’re here to celebrate what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for and show that UCF students stand for the same thing,” she said.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Parade took place just over a week after four black men—known as the Groveland Four—were pardoned in a 70-year-old case that branded them as rapists.
The four men, Earnest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, were pardoned by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Jan. 11, legally freeing them from the criminal accusations brought on by a white woman who accused them of attacking her in Groveland, Florida.
Gilbert King, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for his nonfiction book “Devil in the Grove” detailing the events surrounding the Groveland Four case, said the pardon resonated on a bipartisan level.
“It wasn’t left versus right; it was wrong versus right,” Gilbert King said.
Although all four men are now dead, Gilbert King said the effect the pardon had on the men’s families meant everything.
“These men had their names cleared and a shameful cloud lifted that’s been over their heads for 70 years,” he said.
These recent events have spurred a conversation about the state of civil rights in our country and community today.
“We have [made] a lot of progress, but we also still have a lot to do,” Lewis said. “We still have individuals getting gunned down in the streets—unarmed individuals, and we still have all sorts of institutional racism.”
Gilbert King said he agrees that while the civil rights movement and the criminal justice system in our country today are far from perfect, they have greatly improved since Martin Luther King Jr. began his fight. He said he believes the younger generations will continue to lead Martin Luther King Jr.’s mission forward.
Owoade said he agreed that the civil rights conversation isn’t just for adults or activists anymore.
“There are a lot of young adults and teenagers who have joined the conversation, and I think [Martin Luther King Jr. would] be impressed by the fact that people are still standing up and speaking up,” Owoade said.
Gilbert King said the reason he believes the criminal justice system failed the men in the Groveland Four case was because black people were not given a voice. He said more people are watching and paying attention now to what is happening in our criminal justice system.
Lewis said one of the greatest obstacles in progressing civil rights today is changing people's mindset about race.
“I do think [Martin Luther King Jr.] would have more work to do, even now,” Lewis said. “There’s always room for improvement.”
She said we should follow Martin Luther King Jr.’s model, and judge people by their character, their values and where their principles lie—not by their skin color.