The one thing Vern Howard, the chairman of the Martin Luther King Marade knows for sure is regardless of the weather and other obstacles, people are going to come out and march in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Case in point, Black Lives Matter 5280 protesters interruption of last year’s ceremony, but the Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday Commission kept the celebration moving. Previously there was talk about cancelling the Marade in 2007 and 2008 when the temperatures dipped well below zero, but again event organizers were not detoured.
“I had always said, ‘No,’ we are notcancelling,” says Howard who is celebrating his 20th year as chairman of the Marade. “Dr. King walked and was spat upon, blasted with fire hoses, threatened, had dogs sic’d on him, and we can’t march down the street because it’s cold? We live in Colorado. We already know it’s going to be cold in January. One thing I know for sure is the Marade is going to happen. People are going to come out and they are going to represent.”
Signed into law
The term “Marade” was coined by the honorable former First Lady of Denver Wilma Webb, who fought in the Colorado legislature to have Dr. King’s birthday recognized as a Colorado state holiday. Webb’s efforts came to fruition on April 4,1985 as then Colorado’s Governor Dick Lamm signed the legislation into law. In 1986, Webb announced that Denver would have a one-of-kind march and parade called a “Marade.”
The 3.5-mile Marade begins from City Park’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, winds down Colfax Avenue and ends at the Denver Civic Center Park. The event attracted 72,000 people in 2016.
“We used to march from the monument down to the State Capital,” says Howard who also serves as the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission since 2000. “Then all of the legislators would wait until we got there, and they would come walking out to the cameras and wave – as if they were always a part and supportive of what we have done. And I said, ‘That’s not happening anymore.’ So we now go over to the Civic Center Park. If the politicians wanted to be a part of the Marade, then I would respect them more if they would come and be a part of it before we reach the State House.”
Howard says it’s aone-of-a kind march in the nation honoring the memory of the slain civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and last years’ Marade was punctuated by speeches from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner.
“Before the holiday was passed,” Howard explains, “a group called Umoja, which means unity, started marching along with Black educators trying to bring Dr. King’s birthday as a holiday here in Colorado. I was marching to be anenforcer, if we were going to have problems with the Ku Klux Klan, or whatever the case may be. I wanted to march. That was way back in the late ‘70s early ‘80s.”
Howard, a young man at the time, says he would work behind the scenes during the march making sure that the logistics were taken care of. Little did Howard know that event organizers Hollis Jones, John Elbeck, Leonard Sewell, Ron Pinkard and Ron Younger had future plans for him.
“They were 20, maybe 30, years older than I was,” Howard says. “They were training me to take over the Marade when they retired.”
Howard says it’s never been difficult to get people to participate in the Marade. He says Dr. King hadspoke and written over two million words in his lifetime, and in those words, people have been able to find the causes that they champion.
“Colorado is truly a melting pot with liberal thoughts and conservative values,” Howard says. “Because of that, we have had Democrats, Republications and Independents alike, support everything we have done with Martin Luther King in our state.”
Howard explains that all members of the Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday Commission are non-paid volunteers and are doing Dr. King’s work from their hearts.
“We’re doing it because we honestly believe in what we are doing, and why we are doing it,” Howard saysunderling the fact that if anyone is interested in volunteering, it’s as easy as going to the Commission’s website.
Howard says Wilma Webb founded the Commission’s Humanitarian Award about 25 years ago – an award where the community nominates the recipients.
“We have a committee from around the state of Colorado that reads the nominations and selects the awardees,” Howard says. “It’s in conjunction with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in Boettcher Concert Hall, located the Denver Centerof the Preforming Arts. It’s an awe-inspiring event. They have been our partners ever since we started this program. You have beautiful symphonic music and a video presentation that takes us through the chronicles of Black history and culture in the United States. Then we honor six individuals, plus a lifetime achievement award and the Wellington Webb Founder Award, which is chosen by the Commission.”
Not all celebratory
The Commission, a grassroots 100 percent volunteer entity, offers MLK events year round. StartingMonday Jan. 9, before the Marade begins on Jan. 16, the Commission will offer a kick-off celebration in Aurora. Everyday the Commission holds events at places such as the Aurora Fox Theatre on Colfax, the Municipal Building, churches and schools. The Commission also offers youth scholarships. In 2014 they presented more than $20,000 in youth scholarships and had Harry Belafonte attend that evening’s event.
“We just don’t do celebratory events,” Howard says. “We champion needs of people in the community – food and a recycle fair for clothes. We work with the ACLU,NAACP and unions. If there is an issue, and we’re able to help, we will. At the Marade, we had folks bring old cell phones, because we have partnered with a couple of companies that revamp cell phones and give them to battered women shelters. In order for us to continue putting on these types of events, we need the community’s help. They can go to our website and donate whatever they can – no matter how big or how small.”
Howard says the Humanitarian Awards are given out the Tuesday before the Marade. And this year is a special year for Howard as he’s being awarded an honorary doctorate degree for the work he has done in the community.
“And because of the work we have done in Colorado, I was personally invited by the King family to attend Mrs. King Funeral in February, 2006. I literally received a phone call at 3 a.m. with the invitation,” Howard says.
Two other highlights of Howard’s tenure was being invited by the White House communication staff to be the guest of President Obama at the signing of the stimulus package that was held in Denver in 2009.
And lastly, Howard says he was fortunate enough to attend the dedication of the Dr. King’s monument in Washington D.C. in October 2010. As a photographer I was able to take my camera to each of these events,” Howard says. “And get up close and personal and capture pictures of the president and other key figures.”
Reflecting on the Commission’s work, Howard says, “We work year around under Dr.Kings premises, ‘If I can help somebody, then my living shall not be in vain.’ That is what we work for each and every year.”
Editor’s note: For a complete list of the MLK Calendar of Events, check out pages four and five. For more information on the Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday Commission, visit www.drmartinlking- jrchc.org