People & Places

Marching for unity in Iowa City on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Event celebrates community and 'courageous conversations'

Iowa City Council members Mazahir Salih and Kingsley Botchway II lead Monday’s Color of Unity Parade to Grant Wood Elementary School in Iowa City. The MLK Alliance Group, a collaboration of Iowa City-area community groups, coordinated weekend events culminating in the unity march, service activities and town hall forum in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. About 100 people braved the bitter cold to make the milelong march. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa City Council members Mazahir Salih and Kingsley Botchway II lead Monday’s Color of Unity Parade to Grant Wood Elementary School in Iowa City. The MLK Alliance Group, a collaboration of Iowa City-area community groups, coordinated weekend events culminating in the unity march, service activities and town hall forum in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. About 100 people braved the bitter cold to make the milelong march. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Despite bitter cold temperatures with a subzero windchill, more than 100 people turned out Monday for a Color of Unity march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. in Iowa City.

Community activist and founding member of the Black Voices Project Royceann Porter, who helped organize the day’s events, offered hot chocolate to everyone who came through the doors at Faith Academy, where marchers gathered before walking.

“This is just showing unity. For all these people to come out on a day like today, it shows they’re up and ready to go,” she said. “As I look around this room, I’m elated.”

The route, just over a mile between Faith Academy, 1030 Cross Park Ave., and Grant Wood Elementary School, 1930 Lakeside Drive, covered mostly residential streets. The fact that there weren’t many passing cars or pedestrians to see them didn’t stop the marchers from singing, “We Shall Overcome” or waving handmade signs with declarations like, “Diversity matters,” “Speak out for justice” and “Equality is right.”

The march, led by grand marshals and Iowa City Council members Kingsley Botchway II and Mazahir Salih, was about more than making a statement to outsiders, said Rachael Molapo, who walked with her husband and three children, ages 11, 6 and 2, the youngest under a blanket in a stroller. She said she was there so her children could learn about King’s messages and legacy of fighting racial injustice firsthand. She also wanted them to be surrounded with others dedicated to marking that legacy.

“I remember as a child learning about Martin Luther King in school, but with my kids, we’ve never celebrated his life and commemorated all the things he fought for before,” she said.

Harry Olmstead navigated the slush-covered streets with his wheelchair and shared his motivation for being there: his favorite King quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Coming up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it gave me an idea of a purpose: instead of tearing things down, building things up,” he said. “I think it’s important to have unity in our community and support each other and support the values that Martin Luther King stood for.”

Once the marchers reached Grant Wood, warmth and sound greeted them in the school’s gymnasium, where a party atmosphere reined, with dancers and spoken word poetry, music, arts and crafts for children, and people gathering around tables to make care packages for clients at the Crisis Center of Johnson County.

Nonprofit organizations handed out information, and volunteers from the League of Women Voters registered people to vote and provided information on Iowa’s new voter ID law. Representatives of city and county government and the Iowa City school district were on hand to support the day’s programming.

“I want people to realize that we can come together as a community, that we do not have to fall by the wayside of what Dr. Martin Luther King did for us,” Porter said. “We want our young and our old to remember, so we don’t fall backward. We want to go forward.”

The day ended with that goal.

On Saturday, facilitators had held conversations with area middle and high school students at a Martin Luth King Jr. youth day event at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center. As community members gathered Monday over pizza and sandwiches in the school cafeteria, the facilitators presented the concerns and issues the teens had identified, from racial profiling by police to inadequate focus on black history in school curricula to discrepancies in how white students and students of color are disciplined.

Group discussions on those issues followed. For all the talk of unity, we still have far to go, facilitators emphasized.

And one of the event’s organizers, Iowa City Special and Underserved Populations Recreation Supervisor RaQuishia Harrington, urged participants to leave with that in mind.

“I hope we got some solutions and some people committed to taking some action steps,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to have courageous conversations. I hope the conversations don’t stop here.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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