Every year for three decades, Leesburg’s annual MLK March and Celebration has drawn a diverse crowd, as community members of different faiths and political persuasions brave the cold to walk the symbolic route from the Loudoun County Courthouse to historic Douglass School.
But with COVID numbers soaring and state guidelines limiting gatherings, organizers have taken the program virtual this year. And while the absence of an in-person march leaves a hole, it also offers an opportunity for some unprecedented star power on the event’s 30th anniversary, with a keynote speech from civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“Our march is very important but not at the risk of our community’s health,” said Tammy Carter, chairwoman of the MLK march organizing committee. “But it’s important for us to keep the message and still continue on with this event.”
The upside of a virtual event is an impressive slate of nationally known speakers. Sharpton, a Baptist minister, talk show host and former presidential candidate, will be joined by Virginia’s U.S. senatorsMark Warner and Tim Kaine, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and other guest speakers in addressing this year’s timely theme,Equality Above All: Overcoming Injustices and Inequities.
“This is definitely a positive way to look at things in that aspect,” Carter said of the star-studded speakers list.
Committee members had initially planned to take the event’s program of speeches and performances online and still do the march in person. But with cases rising and new restrictions from the governor, organizers decided to go with a completely virtual format. The virtual program allowed Carter and her committee to dream big and cast a wide net for speakers. The program often features local luminaries with terrific stories. But getting a commitment from Sharpton, who will provide a keynote speech especially for the Loudoun event, was an achievement. Carter connected with Sharpton’s team through a mutual contact and was surprised and thrilled to get a yes.
“I broke out in tears when [Sharpton’s assistant] called me back,” Carter said.
The 2021 MLK celebration comes on the heels of an intense year of racial reckoning, with local and national protests in support of Black Live Matter. 2020 saw big changes in Loudoun, with the removal of the confederate statue at Loudoun’s courthouse and the removal the Loudoun County High School mascot in July and a vote last month to replace the plaque on the county’s segregated World War I memorial.
Carter says the MLK March stands on its own as a community institution. Over the years, the event has traditionally drawn from a diverse political and religious representation, even during divisive times.
“That’s what MLK is here for is for the community. We’re not political, we’re not religious, we’re not denominational,” Carter said. “We’re just people trying to help in the community to make sure everything is equal and just. … It kind of brings Loudoun together, even if it’s just for a day.”
For the past three decades, marchers have made their way from the Loudoun County Courthouse in downtown Leesburg to Douglass School, the county’s last segregated school, which closed in 1968 and now operates as an alternative high school for LCPS. The event has expanded in size in recent years and has become a major production with multiple components: the march, morning events for people who aren’t able to march, a program of speakers and performances, food and fellowship. It’s also a who’s who of local and state-level politicians every year.
This year, organizers are encouraging community members to walk the march route as individuals or in small socially distanced groups throughout the month of February and to document their walks. Organizers will share details on the event’s Facebook page starting Jan. 25.
Carter, a local educator, took over the MLK march committee chairmanship in 2008. Her friend and fellow committee member Lily Dunning has been participating as a marcher since elementary school. Dunning’s parents Peter Dunning and Melissa Weaver Dunning, founders of the Bluemont Concert Series, were involved with organizing the first marches in the early ’90s. When Dunning took over as executive director of Bluemont Concert series in 2011, she joined the MLK march committee. Bluemont closed its doors in 2018, but Dunning remains involved with the committee.
“I’ve gotten to benefit from growing up being part of this community in so many ways” said Dunning.“It’s been really exciting to see how the support for this community event has expanded. … I hope that the importance of the event, the message of the event has gotten more and more important in the last couple of years as we really see folks coming together, especially white folks, to fight against racial inequality.”
Dunning adds that another upside of going virtual is that this year’s event can bring past participants and others into the fold.
“We’re not limited in who can attend. People who live all over the country and all over the world can participate this year. I know that will be meaningful to people who have been a part of the march and have moved away. They’ll get to kind of rejoin that community … and hopefully we’ll reach a lot of new people with the great speakers that we have involved,” she said.
For Carter, the virtual event is a way for Loudouners of all faiths and colors to come together during challenging times, even if they can’t march side by side.
“That’s the joy of this event–It’s one of the most diverse events that Loudoun has. We get people from all denominations, all religions, all creeds and they enjoy being together,” Carter said. “I just wish the rest of this world had that joy and could come together that way. But we’ll get there.”
The virtual Martin Luther King March and Celebration takes place Monday, Jan. 18 at noon. Organizers are asking participants to pre-register online through the Cvent platform atcvent.me/017eex. For details, go to facebook.com/mlkmarchleesburg.