The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day March drew hundreds to downtown Fort Myers on Monday.
Caroline Massey Harden stood outside Dunbar-Jupiter Hammon Library in a t-shirt honoring her “soldiers.”
“My mother, who’s right here — her picture — Ida, and my brother, John, they were in the Bloody Sunday from Selma, Alabama," Massey Harden said.
What became known as Bloody Sunday was a brutal confrontation between civil rights marchers heading to Montgomery and state troopers who charged the crowd, beating them with nightsticks and deploying tear gas.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Atlanta that Bloody Sunday in 1965, but he traveled to Alabama when he heard the news, calling it “the greatest confrontation so far in the South.”
“I march every year in honor of my mom because she lost a child in that Bloody Sunday," Massey Harden said. "And, I figure if she was willing to get out there and risk her life and her unborn child to march for the rights and the freedom of people, I feel like, why shouldn’t I?”
Though Massey was one of the first to arrive to the commemorative march, soon, hundreds joined her for the nearly 2-mile trek to Centennial Park, all the while singing gospel songs led by Earl Sparrow.
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Sparrow is a member of the local alumni chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American fraternity, which Dr. King himself was a member of. Sparrow’s brothers led the crowd down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, carrying a banner displaying Alpha Phi Alpha’s motto, “First of All, Servants of All, We Shall Transcend All.”
Sparrow hung back, singing “Amen” on high for the rest of the route.
“Without the elders and the ancestors that came before us, we wouldn’t even be standing in this park right now," Sparrow said. "We wouldn’t be able to march with a police escort. Instead of being escorted by the police, we would be escorted to a paddy wagon to go downtown for civil disobedience.”
Sparrow said it’s heartening seeing the youth involvement in commemorative marches like this. Florida Gulf Coast University’s Multicultural and Leadership Development Program filled the center of the crowd in a sea of blue tees, and the group was caboosed by the Dunbar High School Marching Band.
Massey Harden says she has a reason to march, but she hopes the younger generation realizes that they do too.
“You know, it’s not just about going to the park and walking around and eating," Massey Harden said. "You know, we’ve got to keep the history alive — what happened and is still happening. And, unfortunately, it’s only seemed like it’s gotten worse rather than better.”