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After a halting start, King Day parade is fully in step

Organizers had trouble getting people to join in L.A.'s first one in 1986. Now it's the Southland's largest celebration of the slain civil rights leader.

January 15, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

As hard as it might be to believe, there was a time when some people didn't care for the Martin Luther King Jr. Kingdom Day Parade in South Los Angeles.

Organizers lobbied hard to persuade people to even ride in the first one in 1986. Tom Bradley, Los Angeles' black mayor, didn't take part for its first six years.

And some questioned whether the celebration was an appropriate tribute to the slain civil rights leader.

But over the years, the parade has grown to become Southern California's largest celebration of King, attracting tens of thousands of spectators, and is a must for politicians, high school marching bands, taekwondo students and even mariachi bands.

Today's parade, on Martin Luther King Day, begins at 10:30 a.m. It will head west from Western Avenue down West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, then south on Crenshaw Boulevard, ending at Leimert Park, where a festival will be held. KNBC-TV Channel 4 will broadcast the parade live from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

"Now everyone wants to be a part of it," said Aundrae Russell, program director for KJLH-FM (102.3), an Inglewood radio station that has been affiliated with the parade since its first year in South Los Angeles.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, L.A. City Council members and other lawmakers are expected to participate.

Russell said that cities such as Inglewood and Long Beach hold their King Day events on other days.

"They know everyone wants to be in this one," he said.

The person who has largely kept the parade going is its founder, Larry Grant, an energetic 80-year-old retired banker.

Grant said he began working on the idea for a parade in 1980, three years before Congress passed legislation creating the King holiday.

Then the president of Pacific Coast Bank in San Diego, Grant was dismayed at the sight of teenagers drinking beer at a corner liquor store; when he confronted them, they said they didn't care to go to school.

Grant said he thought a parade might help inspire African American youths to get their minds back on education.

"Everyone loves a parade," Grant said last week. "Maybe we can get some African American dignitaries and give some of these youngsters food for thought."

After launching a King Day parade in San Diego in 1981, Grant decided to bring it to Los Angeles after he retired. He teamed up with the late Celes King III, a bail bondsman and black activist who was the founding state chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality and was instrumental in renaming South L.A.'s Santa Barbara Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1983.

The parade didn't get off to a promising start. The third parade, beset by chilly winds, had a disappointing turnout. City Hall wasn't very enthusiastic about the event, according to a 1988 Times article. Only one city official attended, and Mayor Bradley rejected an invitation to take part.

In fact, Bradley would not attend the parade for several more years, saying he was insulted that Celes King III did not invite him to the first one, a charge King denied.

Underlying the tension was Celes King's support of Republican George Deukmejian, who defeated Democrat Bradley in gubernatorial elections in 1982 and 1986, said his son, Celes King IV.

Bradley eventually agreed to take part, making his first appearance in 1992.

The parade also did not initially receive a warm response from the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Martin Luther King Jr. once led.

"His life's work was about marching for justice, and not parading for fun," state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) said last week.

Ridley-Thomas, who formerly led the SCLC's local chapter and now takes part in the parade, said the thrust of King's life "was to challenge this nation to live up to the highest ideals of democracy," while the parade is "more to celebrate his iconic status."

But, he added, "I recognized that there were a number of people who appreciated my being in the parade and I recognized further that the hard work the parade coordinators put into it was worth celebrating."

The parade also survived the racial tensions stemming from the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a Korean American grocer in 1991.

Tong Suk Chun, a taekwondo instructor, remembers hearing jeers when he rode in the parade, prompting him to get out of the car and reply that "We are neighbors."

"Some people said, 'Oh, shut up and go back to your country.' But so many wonderful people said, 'Thank you for coming' ... and after two or three years, that never happened again," said Chun, who has become a parade co-chairman and helps invite international guests to the event.

Now, Grant says, there doesn't seem to be any doubt about the parade's appeal, pointing out that he has a succession plan: Should anything happen to him, his grandson would take over.

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ron.lin@latimes.com

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