Jackson’s big Parade: MLK Day celebration ranked tops in USA

By Earnest McBride
JA Contributing Editor

The long march and slow drive through the cheering crowds along the parade route started out from a sense of duty. But it quickly changed into a labor of love. And that’s where it remains today.

Saturday’s parade is the cornerstone of the 25th annual celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The big day for the big parade in Jackson has grown to become the largest such event in the country.

Thanks to the continued dedication of founders Kenneth and Larita Stokes, this year’s parade will again rank as tops in the nation.

Jackson’s Martin Luther King Birthday celebration began with a vision that developed when Kenneth and Larita Stokes were attending the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Texas when they saw their first large-scale Martin Luther King Birthday celebration in Houston. The annual celebration took three years to get underway after the holiday it signed into law under President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Because Kenneth and Larita had been lifelong companions before becoming husband and wife, they always shared each other’s dreams and plans. From that moment in Houston, the couple never let the idea drift far from their memory.

“From the beginning,” said Larita Stokes, “when Kenny and I were in law school in Houston, they had this big boulevard named for Dr. King and the parade they held there was so energizing for both of us that we just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Councilman Stokes always said, ‘When we get back home, we’re going to do the same for Jackson.’ And so we did.”

At first the celebration in Jackson was little more than a drive-by with a caravan of cars and trucks shining their headlights as they crept along the old Whitfield Mill Road.

Kenneth Stokes knew, however, that they needed a lot more participation if they were to walk in the shadows of what they had seen in Houston. Big college and high school bands, majorettes and young people’s groups high-stepping to the music in a Mardi-Gras-like atmosphere was essential to what they wanted. So they set out to make this happen.

Stokes and his wife formed the Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration Committee that attracted a great number of volunteers. Then they mapped out the plan that has evolved into the biggest King Day celebration in the country.

“When we first approached the school officials here in Jackson,” Stokes said, “School Superintendent Bop Fortenberry said that the schools could volunteer their bands for the parade, but he would not mandate them to participate. So from the very beginning, Lanier High School has been a part of the parade. We have had bands from all the high schools and with Jackson State University and Alcorn. We invite bands from all over and have had them come from New Orleans, Chicago, Houston, and Holly Springs. Mississippi Valley State is a part of the celebration in Greenville and so they haven’t been able to participate on MLK Day in Jackson.”

As city councilman form the Third district, Stokes represents the main artery of the parade route that winds along Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd. But residents from all over greater Jackson area and beyond make a point of attending the ceremonies. And this embrace of the MLK Day celebration by such a broad section of the community pleases Kenneth and Larita Stokes to no end.

“We felt a sense of obligation to honor Dr. King for all that he did for us and knowing that he gave his life in the effort to gain civil rights for everyone,“ Kenneth Stokes said Tuesday.”We wanted to make sure that he would be remembered here in the capital of the state of Mississippi.

“It’s like payback,” he added. “We try to pay Dr. King back for caring and doing so much, and for making the ultimate sacrifice of his life for the good of all people, especially for black people who had not yet emerged from a history of oppression in this country. When Dr. King opened the door for black people, he opened the door for all people in the world who had been disenfranchised.”

As the King Day celebration found its own identity beginning in 1986, the national celebration was always centered in Atlanta. It was possible for each community to follow its own plans independent of the national agenda. Still, every city across the country was invited to participate and received special recognition for being part of the national event.

“When Mrs. Coretta Scott King was alive, the biggest celebration was in Atlanta,” Stokes pointed out.”Everybody had the same theme. The theme came from the King Center where everything was coordinated. So we kept working at getting ourselves organized here in Jackson. We started blocking off the streets for the parade and would invite the King Center to offer suggestions. And we were rated number three or number four on the list of the best events nationally.”

Featured in Ebony Magazine and reported on through the 200-member National Newspaper Publishers Association, Jackson’s Martin Luther King’s Day celebration gained praise nationwide.

“From our small beginning with our lineup of cars shining their headlights along the parade route, we began attracting national figures to attend our events and to come in as our parade marshal and keynote speaker,” Stokes said. “There’s not another celebration that goes on for two weeks like the King celebration does.”

The local celebration is a reflection of the spirit of Dr. King, Larita Stokes said. King realized that his real base of support lay with the everyday people who forsook their jobs and other duties to take on the struggle for civil rights.

“I believe that Mississippi was close to Dr. King’s heart,” she said. “When he was at the March on Washington, he mentioned Mississippi several times. I believed he cared about Mississippi. And we love him still today.”