No parade, but Ocala will mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Every year, hundreds of people observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a march from the Ocala downtown square to Webb Field at Martin Luther King Recreation Complex about a mile away.

Music, food and vendors usually await the marchers as the solemn event turns into a celebration.

But this year, it will be silent. 

Organizers canceled the Jan. 18 event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The annual wreath-laying ceremony and prayer will still go on at King Memorial Park on the 500 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. But Instead of a march, two movies, “Harriet” and “Just Mercy,” will air at the Ocala Drive-In on Jan. 18. 

Eric Cummings, a Marion County School Board member, said instead of a parade, a food caravan is planned.

“It’s going to be a day of giving,” Cummings said. “We’re going to have the very first Martin Luther King Day food caravan. It’s going to be to Interfaith Services’ food pantry.”

The caravan will start at the Second Bethlehem Baptist Theological Seminary, 1205 NW 4th St., at 9 a.m. They will drive a few blocks to the food pantry. There, volunteers will unload the non-perishable food donations. Ocala City Councilman Ire Bethea, the chairman of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission, said they waited to see if they could still host the march. But due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, they decided to cancel.  “We’ve had these activities for 30-plus years, so, you know, we definitely wanted to have it,” Bethea said. “But you know, even with masks on, we normally have probably 2,000-plus people marching in that march. And how can you keep them from being in, you know, close proximity to each other?”

Bethea suffered through a bout with COVID-19 in July and required hospitalization for a time.

“We thought that the drive-in would be a better fit for this time because, you know, families would be in their individual cars,” he said. “People wouldn’t be mingling that much.”

Bethea said that there is a plan to partner with the Ocala Concert Series as well as the city of Ocala for future events. 

Former Marion County NAACP President TiAnna Greene said the lack of a march will make it difficult to let their voices be heard and come together as a community.

“I was saddened to know that,” Greene said. “We usually have a prayer breakfast. We have youth activities at Howard Academy… I don’t think we have the opportunity to convey, especially during these times, how important it is to continue to do the works that have been started before us, and to kind of give us the motivation to keep going and motivate the generations behind us.”

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