Preaching racial unity, openness and collective responsibility, hundreds of protesters channeled the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday’s holiday, marching through Falls Church in a historic first for the 70-year-old city.
Peaceful marchers, armed with signs reading “Love not hate” and “Unity is power” among others, began at the Tinner Hill Historic Monument, where 100 years ago the first rural branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People fought for equality against the segregated City of Falls Church. (See photos of the march here.)
The eclectic group of protesters wound their way to F.C. City Hall, chanting “We need unity!” and “We want peace!” in a call and response that harkened back to King’s Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s.
The official crowd total was 561 according to Curt Westergard of Digital Design & Imaging Service, Inc.
While Ed Henderson, executive director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, made it clear that the MLK Day march was not a reaction to the November election, there was no mistaking the impact of president-elect Donald Trump on the tone and tenor of the participants.
“The days since November 8th have been among the most interesting and trying of my life,” U.S. Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., (D) who represents the 8th District of Virginia, including the City of Falls Church, told the crowd on the steps of City Hall. “I’m sure for many of you, too.”
But, Byer added, this anger and despondency has the potential to be transferred into collective action.
“What I have seen across Virginia, especially Northern Virginia, since November 8th,” he said, “is a lot of people, and not just Democrats, but people all across the political spectrum, more energized, more passionate, more determined to make a difference with our lives than ever before.”
This sense of collective action, of working with others to combat the sense of dread and divisiveness, resonated with many of the marchers.
“It’s time to get active and it’s time to hit the streets,” said Marc Robarge, an art teacher at George Mason High School and longtime Falls Church resident. “When you put feet on the ground, when you take time out of your day when you could be doing other things, there’s a synergy that happens.”
“Our country is divided right now,” said Robert Tart, a U.S. Department of Justice employee and Falls Church resident. “We gotta bring that back together again. We can fight – we don’t like what this one’s saying, we don’t like what that one’s saying – but we gotta get over our own selves and we gotta make sure we move toward working for everybody. Once we do that, we’re good.”
After the march, hundreds packed into City Hall for a panel discussion and viewing of Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Befitting the day, the program began with a rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the James Weldon Johnson poem often referred to as the “Black American National Anthem.”
The panelists, who represented a wide swath of local community organizations, noted the challenges regarding race relations and political divisiveness, and offered advice on how to take action.
Garland Nixon, an ACLU board member, local talk show host and former police officer, said it’s important for people to acknowledge their racial biases.
“If you’ve lived in America and don’t have racial hang-ups,” he said, “that’s like swimming in a pool and not getting wet.”
Walter Tejada, chair of the Virginia Latino Leaders Council, spoke about the blowback faced by immigrants and the need to stand up for progressive values.
One of the fundamental ways to affect positive change, said Raheema Abdullah Karim, White House Senior Associate General Counsel, is to “work from a position of empowerment and not a position of fear.”
“It’s so important to not be afraid of what’s going to come but be empowered to say, ‘we are going to make a difference,’” Karim said. “We’re going to make sure that even the most vulnerable in our communities are protected.”
At the end of the program, Nikki Graves Henderson, co-host of the MLK event, reminded the audience of what Dr. King referred to as “the fierce urgency of now.”
“This is not business as usual,” Henderson said. “It’s time to get to work.”