The Rev. Cleo Smith, one of the sanitation workers who was part of the 1968 strike, stood on the stage at a park on the corner of A.W. Willis Avenue and North Main Street in his dark glasses and an elegant coat. It is around 9 in the morning, and the weather is so cold, frozen grass crunches beneath the feet of the folks he’s about to address as the King Day parade grand marshal.

“If you want to be successful, you’ve got to fight,” Smith said, invoking tales of Biblical faith helping to ascend mountains. Now in his late 70’s, he continues to work alongside his union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME,) and still clocks in for shifts with the city’s sanitation department.

Echoing that call was Maxine Thomas-Marsh, a longtime organizer with the Commission on Religion and Racism (CORR), the group that started the King Day Parade, which this year honored the 91st birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Are we worthy of living the legacy of Dr. King?” Thomas-Marsh asked the crowd as they shifted in the cold before lining up to march the route carved out by CORR 35 years ago.

“Faith without works is dead,” she said.

As the march set afoot, Willie Perry cruised by on roller skates. For the past four years, he’s joined the parade, swirling around its edges and occasionally pulling off to free style. Perry said he likes showing up how he can, alongside his community, while bringing something unique to this annual ritual.

“I like to do what I can,” Perry said.

The entertainment stage outside the National Civil Rights Museum at The Lorraine Motel
The front line of the parade

Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at

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