This post was originally published on The Washington Informer

By James Wright Jr.

Hundreds of people lined up Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast to commemorate the federal and local holiday of the thoroughfare’s namesake and support the call for the end to gun violence in the District during the annual peace walk and parade on Jan. 16.

“My family and I watch the parade every year,” said Anaysia Owens, who stood with her family near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Pomeroy Avenues to watch the procession. “This is a tradition for us. It is really beautiful this year, seeing all of the cars and people marching.”

The peace walk and rally occurred at Shepherd Park near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues. After, participants marched north on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue to the entrance of the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center located on the campus of St. Elizabeths East. The marshals let D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s large contingent of marchers wearing green t-shirts on the avenue march before letting the peace rally and walkers merge with the parade. The official route for the parade started outside the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center, traveling north to Anacostia Park even though many stopped marching at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road in Southeast.

The emotional peace walk and rally

Fifty people stood in the middle of Shepherd Park — intersected by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues — to hear speeches and testimonials on why the gun violence in the District needs to stop.

The Rev. DeLonte Gholston, pastor of the Peace Fellowship Church in Ward 7’s Deanwood neighborhood, said the Shepherd Park location of the peace walk and rally invokes memories of gun violence.

“I can’t shake the fact that King was murdered,” Gholston, 42, said. 

“I can’t shake the fact that Malcolm X was murdered. I can’t shake the fact that a 6-year-old was murdered close to here,” the pastor added, referring to Nyiah Courtney losing her life to gun violence in July 2021.

The Rev. William Lamar IV, senior pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Northwest, debunked the myth that King and Malcolm X disliked each other. He said the leaders “were moving in the same direction.”

“Both of them fought to end economic and political oppression,” Lamar, 47, said.

In the segment of the rally that talked about mothers losing children to gun violence, Ward 8 Crystal McNeil spoke emotionally.

“I am Devon McNeil’s mom,” McNeil, 38, said with tears streaming down her face. “My son died at a community event on July 4, 2020. We never really thought we would go through this. Kids are supposed to bury their parents, not the parents bury the kids. Devon would be 14 today. It is painful not seeing my child. It’s time to stop the violence and put the guns down.”

McNeil served as one of the last speakers. The rally turned into the peace walk as marchers headed north to the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center.

Diverse groups participate in parade

Many parade participants, including those working as part of anti-gun violence or youth-oriented organizations, wore red t-shirts with white writing “Thou Shalt Not Kill” as they walked with their groups. 

D.C. Council members Kenyan McDuffie (D-At Large), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), Robert White (D-At Large) Matt Frumin (D-Ward 3) and Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) had supporters marching with them. Prince George’s County Council member Calvin Hawkins (D-At Large) had a number of supporters with him, with some carrying round color posters of his likeness on them. Hawkins, a former Ward 8 resident, praised the late Washington Informer Founder Calvin Rolark for working to secure the federal holiday and encouraged Denise Rolark Barnes, the Informer’s publisher, “to continue the legacy.”

Former D.C. first lady Cora Masters Barry rode in a truck signifying changing the name of Good Hope Road to Marion Barry Avenue. She also urged the crowd to learn more about Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song designed to mobilize support for the holiday in the early 1980s.

The parade continued its tradition of having the Ballou High School marching band as its last participant. A health and wellness fair took place in the parking lot next to the Busboys & Poets eatery.

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