DECATUR — In the last speech of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the trauma his followers had faced even as he encouraged them to continue the struggle for peace and equality.
King delivered a sermon in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before his death. He recalled the protests he led in Birmingham five years earlier, when Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor ordered the police to use attack dogs and fire hoses on nonviolent protesters.
“Bull Connor didn’t know history,” King recalled. “He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.”
Based on the enduring prevalence of King’s legacy, time has done little to quench the fire he spoke about. It was also immune to the biting winds and freezing temperatures that hundreds of people faced Monday when they took to King’s namesake street in his honor.
“He was murdered for what he believed in, and it turns out he was right, in the midst of all this opposition,” said Consuelo Cruz, one of the marchers. “How many of us can say that we would be willing to do that? Especially when everyone’s telling you you’re wrong.”
Groups walked north along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from Mueller Park and south from Hess Park, meeting in the middle at St. Patrick Catholic Church for a memorial program. Their convergence was dramatic, with chants of “we will, we shall overcome” layered over thunderous percussion from the Decatur Power Drillers.
Ada Owens, 59, makes a point of attending the event, which was in its 27th year. If King were alive in 2013, Owens believes he would encourage followers to remain focused.
“You’re going to have ups and downs. You’re going to have disagreements. But stay focused on the people of this country — not so much the politics, the people,” she said. “We still have so much to do in the area of homelessness, oppression, the mentally ill, substance abuse. We have some of the same issues he fought for.”
Several of the marchers were children. Kammond Brown, 12, attended the event for the first time this year along with other members of the Boys and Girls Club.
“I think it was great that he made blacks and whites come together, hold hands and change the law,” Kammond said.
Jeffrey Perkins, president and founder of Caring Black Men, said the organization brought six middle-school students to the event.
It’s important for young people to understand the symbolism of the march, Perkins said, but they must also take action to address some of the issues that King championed.
“I think right now Dr. King would be really disappointed in what we’ve gotten to with the violence in our own community. That’s why I think stuff like this is still important,” Perkins said. “We bring our young people out so they can see what he stood for and, as men in the community, to let them know that we care about them and are trying to reach back to show them what a man is all about.”
Despite the frigid air, Karen Cobb’s enthusiasm was undimmed. The 51-year-old Decatur resident said she hardly ever misses a march.
“I think Dr. King would be saying that he knew that we people can pull it together and get together for peace and equality for everybody,” she said. “I think he’d be proud of us all.”