Martin Luther King III (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais), Vanessa Wyche (Photo courtesy of NASA) and Bernice King (AP Photo/John Bazemore).

When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III recently tweeted “No celebration without legislation,” his words were understandably taken by many to mean a call to cancel traditional MLK Day activities, including various celebrations and parades, and instead, use that day to collectively push for passage of federal voting rights.

But according to organizers and supporters of Houston’s 44th Original MLK Jr. Day Parade and Celebration, and King III’s sister Bernice King, MLK commemorations are not being cancelled, but in some cases repurposed to lend their voice and energy to the demand for voting rights and other issues important to Blacks and others.

Days before the recent City Hall press conference to announce this year’s Houston Original MLK Jr. Day Parade grand marshal, King III made national headlines via his social media post that stated, “No celebration without legislation. On January 17, join me to honor my father and the #MLKLegacy as we call on Congress and the White House to eliminate the Jim Crow filibuster and pass voting rights to protect millions of Black and Brown voters.”

When asked if this year’s MLK Jr. Day Parade in Houston would be altering its activities to participate in King III’s call, Teresa Brewer, board president of the event’s founding organization, the Black Heritage Society, disagreed that Dr. King’s oldest child expected the nation to shut down all MLK holiday activities.

“They weren’t talking about no celebration, but they meant in fact that if Congress, the Senate does not sign the voting rights act then we’re not celebrating that, but we’re still going to carry on the parade and all of those activities honoring Dr. King,” said Brewer. “They didn’t say cancel events. They just said that we we’re going to march to Congress and talk to them about the voting right act.”

Brewer’s words were consistent with King III’s sister, Bernice King, the youngest child of Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King.

To clarify to individuals and organizations that took King III’s edict as a call to ditch all traditional MLK Jr. Day festivities, lawyer and minister Bernice King offered a tweeted video message of her own.

“I want to take this moment to clear up any confusion that some of you may have as a result of a recent headline in the news, suggesting that the King family will not be celebrating the King holiday if voting rights legislation has not been passed,” she stated. “Well, the issue is really not, will we be celebrating, but how we will be celebrating, or more appropriately, commemorating the King holiday. So let me be clear from the outset that we will be commemorating the King holiday, and we are encouraging all of you to continue your commemorations, as well.

“However, if voting rights is still hanging in the balance by the holiday on January 17, 2022, then we, meaning all of us, must collectively use our various commemorations and our platforms on that particular day to do what Dr. King would do. My father would speak and act in a way to ensure that this nation lives up to its promise of democracy by putting pressure on our United States Senate, to bypass the filibuster. And instead of taking the King holiday off, they should make it a day on to pass the voting rights act.”

This message was reiterated by several of the presenters at the press conference at City Hall to share details about the 2022 version of Houston’s Original MLK Jr. Day Parade.

“If there ever was a moment in America’s history that Martin Luther King parade’s acknowledgement was needed, it is needed now in a divided America,” declared U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee. “This week symbolizes division that we never thought we would have ever expected.”

Referring to last year’s Jan. 6 insurrection attempt by Trump supporters who sought to de-legitimize and throw out countless Black votes in four cities that swayed the Nov. 20 presidential election in Biden’s favor by allowing him to win Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan, Jackson Lee mentioned that “the fear, the brutality is something that America has not experienced against itself since the Civil War. And race is at the cornerstone of divisiveness sadly, even in 2022.”

She then made clear her position on using the MLK holiday as, what Bernice King called, a “day on.”

“I want to leave us with the joy of the parade, but I want to leave it with the kind of depth of Ovide Duncantell (founder of Houston’s original MLK Parade)… I hope there is a voting rights float because it needs to say that whatever we’re doing—walking, playing, on a float—we are walking and demanding the passage of the voting rights act that is now before the United States Congress. I hope before we march it will be passed. But as we continue to plan, the spirit of corporations, activists, social leaders and government leaders should be that we must demand the passage of the voting rights act.”

It should be noted that Rev./Attorney King concluded her social media message by stating, “I stand in solidarity with my brother and his family in calling our nation’s attention to securing and protecting the most sacred right of our democracy, which is the right to vote.”

That sense of unity was heard throughout the words uttered during the local press conference about the City of Houston-endorsed MLK parade.

More specifically, solidarity amid the city’s diversity was heralded as one of Houston’s greatest strengths and appeared to be the organizing principle around which many of the key decisions about Houston’s upcoming Original MLK Jr. Day Parade were made, including the choice of 2022 Grand Marshal, Vanessa E. Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Wyche is the first African American to lead NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the first African American woman to lead any NASA center.

“January 17 is a time for our country and our community to honor Dr. King and his life’s work which he dedicated to equality and equity in areas like affordable housing, health care, equity, and voting rights,” said Turner. “This year’s parade grand marshal is someone who truly represents the best of Houston and reflects the dreams and soaring achievement Dr. King championed. By working together, there are no limits to what we can achieve.”

Turner even gave press conference attendees a peak into the thought process behind Wyche’s selection to serve in the role the late U.S. Representative of John Lewis and former Houston Astro George Springer shared in 2019, and former heavyweight champion and businessman George Foreman in Jan. 2020.

There was no parade in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We thought long and hard about who we could focus on that would reflect the struggles that we’ve had in the past, and at the same time, speak to the present and the future in terms of where we are going. We thought that NASA with Vanessa Wyche as the director of the NASA Johnson Space Center, reflected that,” shared Turner.

The mayor added that this year’s parade would also serve as a vehicle to salute and honor African American astronauts who have, or will be going into space, including Robert Satcher, Bernard Harris, Mae Jemison and Jessica Watkins, who will be the first Black woman to join the international space station.  

“Vanessa Wyche captures all of that, the past, the present and the future, which means if we work together in solidarity, there are no limits to what we can achieve… Her leadership comes at a time when space travel is inspiring Americans, young and old of all backgrounds and taking our nation to greater heights.

Wyche spoke to Turner’s point about inspiration after sharing with those gathered at the press conference via Zoom how humbled and “super excited” she was to be named the parade’s grand marshal.

“I just want you to know that this year NASA’s Johnson Space Center is celebrating our 60th anniversary right here in Houston,” said Wyche. “We stand on a legacy going all the way to Apollo Shuttle and now with our commercial launches to the international space station. And we are just excited because we’re going to return to the moon, but this time we are going to do it differently. We’re going to be doing it with commercial partners. We’re going to do it with international partners and we will have the first woman and the first person of color to land on the moon.”

The parade with be held on Jan. 17 at 10am in downtown Houston and will be kicked off by Texas Southern University’s Ocean of Soul marching band, followed by dozens of colorful floats, marching bands, and special surprises. Parade sponsors include ATT, Radio One, and Allegiance Bank.

Claude Cummings, Jr., Regional Vice President, Communications Workers of America (CWA), Gilbert Andrew Garcia, CFA, Managing Partner, and Al Kashani, President, Horizon United Group will serve as co-grand marshals.