Parade honoring civil rights hero has grown since 1982

The first Las Vegas parade in honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., held in 1982, included only 13 entries. Even its organizer was underwhelmed.

"It was more like a funeral procession than a parade," said Wendell Williams, founder of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee and a former state assemblyman.

Now in its 29th year, the festive downtown parade, which starts at 10 a.m. Monday, has about 150 entries, including floats, marching bands, pint-sized cheerleaders, police cruisers, and youth sports and drill teams.

"It just grew," Williams said. "I had no idea it would get to this point."

Williams said the lack of local recognition for King’s birthday prompted him to organize that first parade.

Despite King’s broad impact on society, he was long regarded as a hero mostly for the black community. That view began to change in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill declaring King’s birthday a federal holiday.

King "was a human rights leader, not just a civil rights leader," Williams said.

The theme of this year’s parade is "Living the Dream: Rebuilding America’s Promise, Freedom and Liberty."

Its grand marshals are Sarann Knight Preddy, former co-owner of the historic Moulin Rouge and the first black woman to hold a Nevada gaming license, and longtime local educators Theron and Naomi Goynes.

The parade will begin at the corner of Fourth Street and Hoover Avenue, then proceed north on Fourth to Ogden Avenue. Thousands are expected to attend.

The yearly parade occasionally has been marred by violence.

In 2008, a teenager fired a gun into the air at Fourth and Fremont streets. No one was seriously injured, but the gunshots caused hundreds of people to scatter for cover.

In 2001, a gang-related street brawl involving 20 or 30 people along the parade route forced organizers to end the parade 30 minutes early.

In 1994, someone fired a gunshot at a crowded street corner during the parade. No one was hit, but several people were injured as bystanders ran for cover.

In 1986, police arrested seven gang members for fighting.

Williams said the parade and King’s legacy promote peace, and that the sporadic incidents of parade violence pale in comparison to the community-improvement efforts of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee. The committee has given "tons of scholarships," he said, and hosts more than a week of activities, including a talent show and banquet, leading up to the parade.

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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