by Helen Ruger
Volunteers, projects and service have always been a part of the annual Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service, the largest event celebrating Dr. King in the United States. This year, however, there was another, more assertive, ingredient that was added to the mix: a protest march that aimed to reclaim the spirit of King by “taking action and demanding change.”
I decided that I would find out what was behind the march and take part myself since I haven’t participated in a lot of activist work in the past, but I am eager to become more active in the community. I was drawn to the march since I feel strongly about all of the goals presented, but education specifically was one goal that I was fervent about, and I wanted to be involved in something that had the capacity to bring about change.
The motivation behind the MLK D.A.R.E (MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment) stemmed from the” Black Lives Matter” protests that were held in Philadelphia last month. The march’s organizers, a coalition of area organizations, identified three main goals of this march: justice, jobs and education. Specifically, the participants marched to end “stop and frisk” practices by the police, encourage the “creation of a powerful police oversight board,” advocate an instant minimum wage rise from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour, and demand a democratically controlled, completely funded school system.
One of the march’s organizers, Sharon Gramby-Sobukwe, said that while the annual King Day’s defining projects are “good and useful,” they are “not his true legacy.” She described the protest march as an opportunity for people to stand up and act to turn “community concerns into citizen action” and transform the more “passive” acts of the past King Days of Service, into the direct actions of the present.
The march which brought many thousands of marchers to Center City, started out at the Philadelphia School District’s offices on the Parkway, headed south to City Hall and then east to finish up at Independence Mall. It was meant to complement the record 135,000 volunteers working in service projects around the city. Many of the participants marching included labor unions, religious leaders, parent groups and students, and grassroots activist organizations.
Finally, the march was intended to facilitate change and send a message to those in power.
“This march is a continuation of the efforts of Dr. King and others who fought for racial justice,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, who is the pastor at the Living Water United Church of Christ in Philadelphia. “While a day of service and giving back is a good thing, we need to take it a step further by taking action and demanding change.”
On Sunday, Jan. 18, a day before the march, I spoke with Nomi Martin–Brouillepte from the Philly Student Union, one of the organizations that planned to march. She said that her organization participated because protests are a “tool for change” to fix many of the serious problems going on across the country now, and called protests a place to gather for “collective emotional healing,” which America needs because of all of the “scars” caused by racism across the country.
When Martin Luther King Day finally arrived, I was met with a wave of exciting emotions sparked by my eagerness to participate in my first protest march. Since I was inexperienced as a marcher and slightly unaware of the common actions associated with it, I was a bit anxious, but those feelings disappeared within seconds of the march’s beginning.
Gathered outside the school district headquarters was a crowd of about 2,000 people listening attentively to the multiple speakers who rallied the people with chants and passionate words. One of the speakers, the Rev. Alyn Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, exclaimed with intensity in his voice that now the marchers needed to “take back Philadelphia” and “turn this city around.” He was met with shouts of agreement from the marchers.
When the rally concluded, we turned south to City Hall and began to walk together for justice. We continued to march down the street, packed together with a sea of signs, and all calling a wide range of chants, such as “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it? Shut it down!” The signs, many hand-made with thoughtful quotes, were held up with confidence and determination, With sayings like “Racism is a deadly force,” and “Police – Who do they protect? Who do they serve?” brought additional attention to the seriousness of the social justice issues at hand.
Given the mass of the crowd around me, I couldn’t help but shift my focus to the wide variety of people that were participating in the march. We were a collective group marching for the same reasons – however, none of us looked the same at all. Young, old, black, white and brown, we all came together despite racial, ethnic or socioeconomic divisions. No matter which way I turned my head, there was always a different sight greeting me.
Focusing on the incredible diversity of the marchers led me to ask some of them about their reasons for marching. Laura Wentz, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, told me she marched to support all of the causes of the march, but specifically to promote unions and the “effectiveness of collective bargaining” as a means to hear opposing groups of people.
Randy Conley, a white man carrying a sign “Black Lives Matter,” expressed deep personal connections to the march as he said, “I am not OK with the unequal treatment of blacks, and I want my neighbors, friends, ministers, and my children’s teachers to have the same benefit of the doubt as I do based on skin color.”
I also spoke with Ron Whitehorne from the Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), and he said that PCAPS decided to march because “education is very much related to broader issues of social justice” and that “[they] really identify with the legacy of Martin Luther King.” He said PCAPS was “really excited about the possibility of a march that would raise up the question of racial justice and, in particular, how that relates to the schools.”
Just as the temperature dropped slightly, marchers began to spill into the final destination of the march – Independence Hall. Directly in front of the historic building was a stage with large black microphones and speakers ready to rally the people one last time. The numbers of the march had grown significantly over the course of the afternoon, so it took a good 20 minutes for everyone to fill in the space in front of Independence Hall.
Waller once again gathered everyone and spoke of liberty and compared justice in the time of Martin Luther King to justice now, finding many parallels between the two eras. He ended his speech saying, “it’s time for jubilee and justice now!” Many talented and intense speakers were introduced next, each one received with supporting chants from the crowd. As the rally began to close, I took one more look around me and smiled. The feelings I had inside of me matched the feelings inside of all of the other marchers that day. I felt a light lit inside of me, a spark of desire to change as much as I could that I felt passionate about.
We all were proud of ourselves for participating in such a march. I walked away with my family, since it was time for us to go, and, as I walked along the street away from the crowd, I could still hear the chants echoing for blocks to come. No one can predict the number of marches or protests that will occur in the future.
Ron Whitehorne, however, said that the MLK D.A.R.E coalition will stay together and continue “organizing and keep fighting to meet the three demands of the march.” Individual organizations that participated, such as PCAPS, have gained new allies because of the march, he added, and now “people are coming together around broader concerns.”
Many positive causes have come out of this MLK Day march, and now the support and drive around justice is stronger than ever.
Helen Ruger is a ninth-grade student at Germantown Friends School.