Standing at the intersection of Washington and Hull in downtown Athens, Georgia on the afternoon of Jan. 16, 2017, the energy of the crowd lining the streets electrified the air. Children ran to catch the best view. Cameras and phones were poised at the ready. At around 3:10 p.m., the sounds of music and cheering could be heard in the distance, and then the sight of a crowd, followed by antique cars, dancers, and musicians, marched through downtown Athens and was welcomed by explosive cheers from the spectators of the sidewalks. Athens’ first ever Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade had finally arrived.
Presented by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement (AADM) and the United Group of Artists (UGA Live), the parade was the brainchild of husband and wife, Knowa and Mokah Johnson. The two organized a variety of social-minded groups to march in the parade, including the Economic Justice Coalition, Rhema Christian Fellowship, and the Black Lives Matter Social Action Committee of Athens.
But among the political and social organizations were also representatives of the Athens arts community. “We wanted to represent freedom of expression at a march that is also supposed to be bringing people together in solidarity over bigger issues that we think artists should be inspired by,” says Carla Cao, member of the University of Georgia’s interdisciplinary art research council, Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE).
Other arts groups marching to support Dr. King’s legacy included the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens’ Drum Ensemble and musicians representing Athens for Everyone.
Following the parade, the celebration continued as restaurants Max Canada, World Famous, and Manhattan Cafe opened their doors for crowds to hear acts of the MLK Day Urban Music Festival. Comedians, poets, and hip-hop originals all flexed their artistic skills to pay tribute to the eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr. and to speak their own thoughts on solidarity and equality.
“I like to honor Doctor King by using my spoken word just to enlighten and bring people together, to build bridges between each other,” reflects locally known poet, Shedrick.
Next to spoken word, the music scene was present in full force, drawing outgoing crowd members off the sidewalks and into the streets for dancing. Families could also take a break from the excitement at Little Kings Shuffle Club, where art activities were available for children and an art auction for parents.
The event concluded with Athens in Harmony concert benefiting the AADM at the 40 Watt Club, hosted by Mrs. Johnson herself. “You are part of history today,” she said to an excited audience before the concert kicked off, reminded festival-goers of the implications of social unity and progress made in the Athens community so far.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” said the emcee for the honoree ceremony and friend of the Johnsons’, Lady B. Sims, “but we’re very proud of people like Mokah Johnson and Knowa Johnson, that did not just come to the city to rest among it, but who came to make a difference,” a sentiment largely agreed upon by many in attendance.