By Joel Hall
Eight years ago, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Parade in Jonesboro was a small-time operation, with only two high school bands and a handful of church groups participating.
Eight years later, the parade has grown to one of the largest, organized Martin Luther King, Jr., Day celebrations in the metro Atlanta area.
This year, 62 groups of schools, churches, elected officials, county workers, and public safety officials braved the chilly weather to make the one-mile trek from Government Circle to the Historic Courthouse. Among the parade participants where at least a dozen bands and dance groups from local elementary, middle and high schools.
Herman Turner, the parade's organizer since its inception, said the event had its highest participation this year. He said that if the parade gets any bigger, he may have to search for an alternate route or venue.
"I know the whole community has gotten interested," said Turner. "That's what we've been looking for. It has grown beyond what I thought it would have been. We might have to change our route or location soon, because we are starting to outgrow our staging area."
Several elected officials participated in the parade, and afterwards, got out of their vehicles to interact with constituents.
Sheriff Victor Hill said the sheriff's department has been participating in the event since before he took office, and he noted that more citizens are getting involved.
"I think that more of our young people are starting to get an appreciation," for the King holiday, said Hill. "It's important for us to keep that legacy going. We don't want to embarrass that memory ... we want to make them proud for what [civil rights leaders] did for us."
State Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) recalled colored water fountains, segregated service, and attending Fountain High School, the only black high school in Clayton County prior to integration. However, she said that the demographics and attitudes of Clayton County have changed, and people are more enthusiastic about celebrating the King holiday.
"God has a way of changing things," said Davenport. "We have a long way to go in Clayton County, but I think we are going in the right direction.
"This is a real way for the community to connect," said Davenport, among hundreds of spectators lining Main Street. "When [young people] see this and participate in this, it gives them a chance to see what Martin Luther King was about."
Corey Cohen, a senior drum major at Morrow High School, woke up early on Monday to lead the school marching band in warm-up drills. While Cohen had the alternative of sleeping in, he said he was proud to honor King's memory in song.
"I would like to be warm, but it is still a good experience to be out here," said Cohen. "[Martin Luther King, Jr.] marched numerous times for us, so we can march just one day for him."