Several thousand people marched the familiar route up Montgomery's Dexter Avenue on Monday, many arm in arm, to celebrate the holiday honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King the day after what would have been his 83rd birthday.
The march ended Monday under cloudy skies near the same spot before the Alabama Capitol where King spoke at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March in 1965.
Recordings of King speeches blared as the marchers made their way up the same route used in the past by civil rights protesters and Civil War soldiers.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley greeted the marchers on the steps and told them they were there "to celebrate the birthday of a great man." Bentley's comments were a far cry from a controversial statement he made one year ago when he spoke at the church across the street from the capitol where King as a young pastor helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
One year ago, barely an hour after taking the oath of office, Bentley described fellow Christians as his brothers and sisters, prompting criticism from Jewish groups. On Monday, his message was much more conciliatory. After praising Alabama residents for following King's mantra to "serve one another" after tornadoes ripped through the state last year, Bentley said, "I'm so proud to be governor of a state whose people love each other. Let's be brothers and sisters for everyone," Bentley said.
The rally featured Republicans and Democrats, with both sides promising to work together to fix problems such as providing a quality education to all.
But there were some political divisions. After Bentley and House Speaker Mike Hubbard of Auburn, both Republicans, Democrat state Rep. John Knight of Montgomery said there is still much to be done to make King's dream a reality in Alabama.
Borrowing a line from a King speech, Knight said, "How long will it take us to take the sales tax off of groceries in this state," Knight said. Knight sponsors a bill every year to remove the sales tax from groceries and it is opposed by Republicans.
Afterwards, rally organizer Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, questioned if King would approve to the strict new immigration bill that passed the Legislature last year, but there was no mention made of the controversial legislation during the rally.
Many of those attending the rally had just come from a memorial service at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. The march and church service were among many events held around the state to honor King.
The events included:
- An integrated and interfaith "unity breakfast to honor King in Birmingham along with a march and rally.
- A rally in Tuscaloosa to show unity for the victims of last year's tornadoes.
- An event in Birmingham where 400 free pairs of shoes were distributed to low income residents.
- A march in the northeast Alabama town of Sheffield.
- The Montgomery suburban community of Prattville held its 23rd annual King parade. Standing on the steps of the Alabama Captiol following the rally for King, 87-year-old Willie Mae Wood Whitlow pointed to longtime rally organizer Holmes and said, "I was out there in the field marching before he was born." Whitlow said she still makes it a point to attend rallies on King Day because of the struggle she went through to win the right to vote.
She said she was happy so see so many people, both black and white, at Monday's rally "I've always been a part of it. I just do it because it needs to be done," Whitlow said.