Special Events

All Hail the One, True Martin Luther King Jr. Parade in Houston

The 41st annual "Original" MLK, Jr. Parade and Holiday Festival takes place on Monday, January 21, 2019.
The 41st annual "Original" MLK, Jr. Parade and Holiday Festival takes place on Monday, January 21, 2019. Photo by Marco Torres
Black Heritage Society founder Ovide Duncantell knew how to make a statement. After decades of championing the fight against inequality in Houston, and winning, he wasn't going to sit still when the Martin Luther King Jr. Tree of Life needed to be moved to make way for Metro's light rail line. So, at the age of 75, the activist chained himself to the tree as earth moving equipment drew nearer.

"That tree ended up being moved from where the Martin Luther King Jr. rail station is; that’s how the rail station was able to be constructed there. In agreement and a memorandum of understanding that tree was moved over into MacGregor Park, that area on the corner of Old Spanish Trail and Martin Luther King Boulevard is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Plaza," says Sylvester Brown, Black Heritage Society's operations manager.

Duncantell, who formed the BHS in 1974, was one of the driving forces in getting South Park Boulevard renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. His efforts did not go unnoticed by the Reverend Martin Luther (“Daddy”) King Sr., who attended that name changing event; "Daddy" went on to serve as grand marshal in BHS's first ever MLK Parade in 1978.

And so, in the 41st year of the "Original" MLK, Jr. Parade — and the first year where Mayor Sylvester Turner has chosen sides and declared that the Black Heritage Society's event would be Houston’s official MLK Day parade (our city has had two competing parades since 1996) — it seems fitting that Duncantell has been posthumously named grand marshal.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood for unity," says Mayor Turner. "A single parade to celebrate his legacy could not be more appropriate. It will add meaning to that special day, for which we will have some surprises in store. Unifying the celebration will put us on the path to hosting the biggest and best MLK Day parade.”

Brown says to look for other changes as the "original" parade continues in Houston. "Normally we hold a children’s march on Saturday, the weekend of the holiday. We thought for the purpose of unity in the city — especially after everything we’ve gone through, [Tropical Storm] Harvey, the slogan the city adopted, 'Houston strong' — we wanted to basically take that day the 21st and do as much as we could do to communicate that we are celebrating Dr. King's day unified in the city as we move forward," says Brown.

There's also a new parade route, which has become necessary due to the increase in residential construction east of downtown. It will be more closely aligned with the route taken by the annual Thanksgiving Day and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo parades and the new route will be announced at a press conference on January 7, along with any confirmed grand marshals or special guests.

As our city moves closer toward having one of the largest Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations in the nation, Brown predicts even more changes in coming years. "We want to make sure that our community knows and make sure we honor Dr. King’s legacy with that park which is the Houston Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Plaza and Tree of Life area; we’re going to be doing quite a few things out there as we move forward through the years," says Brown, who says to expect a full weekend of events, Friday through Monday, to celebrate the occasion in coming years.

The "Original" MLK, Jr. Parade is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon January 21, beginning at the corner of McKinney and Smith in downtown Houston. For information, visit blackheritagesociety.org/2019-parade.

In spite of Mayor Turner's declaration, it appears as if competing events are still scheduled around town. Read the origin story here.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney