The world changed in 2020. And the Martin Luther King Freedom March and Commemorative Service is changing in 2021. To promote public safety, the 35th annual march and service Jan. 18 begins with a car parade and ends with a drive-in service at Manual Academy’s parking lot.
The parade lines up at 1:30 p.m. at Bradley University’s Romeo B. Garrett Center. The drive-in service combines video produced by WMBD-TV with sound carried by WPNV-Radio (106.3 FM).
Viewing the program on big screens at Manual and listening to it on the radio allows participants to remain socially distanced in their vehicles throughout the event. WMBD morning co-anchor Shelbey Roberts returns as emcee.
The featured event, a conversation between guest speakers Romando Dixson and Joshua Gunn, represents history-making change at two of the region’s major, mainstream institutions.
Dixson, executive editor of the Journal Star, and Gunn, president and CEO of Peoria Chamber of Commerce and CEO Council, are both the first Black men in their positions in Peoria.
Dixson took over as the Journal Star’s top editor in July. He had been in town about a month when he wrote a front-page editorial about plans to enhance the newspaper’s focus on diversity in hiring and news stories. Originally from Detroit, Dixson turned a youthful interest in sports into a journalism career. He previously worked as sports editor at Mississippi’s largest newspaper, the Clarion Ledger in Jackson. He also worked as a reporter and editor in Greenville, S.C. and as a reporter in Asheville, N.C. Dixson graduated from Michigan State University in 2003.
Gunn, a life-long entrepreneur, served as vice president of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce for four years in his hometown, Durham, N.C. He brings a varied, unique background to his new job as one of the area’s high-profile advocates for business and economic development. A rapper known as J Gunn, he has more than 20 years’ experience as a recording artist, actor and business owner. By the time he was 30, he had started an entertainment company and produced several national and international tours. He is a graduate of North Carolina A&T.
Instead of the traditional march, participants are asked to decorate cars or other vehicles in themes related to the Martin Luther King holiday and/or social justice. Vehicles will line up at 1:30 p.m. at Bradley University’s Romeo Garrett Center, 824 Duryea Place, and leave at 2 p.m.
The route goes from the Garrett Center to Moss Ave., then to Western Ave., Howett St. and Griswold St. before turning into Manual’s parking lot. WPNV-Radio (106.3 FM) will provide music and commentary during the drive.
The program begins at 2:30 p.m. Though it was filmed in advance, mostly at WMBD studios, it is only slightly different from programs of the past. A conversation between Dixson and Gunn, rather than a single speaker, is a new feature. Presentation of the annual MLK Drum Major Awards follows, along with the announcement of a new award category and a special community honor.
The annual march and service, which began before the federally recognized holiday, has always relied on donations and sponsors. In 2021, the Martin Luther King Holiday Committee of Peoria welcomes Peoria Public Schools, WMBD-TV, and WPNV-Radio to the line-up of co-sponsors that include Bradley University, Illinois Central College, Afro-American Firefighters Association of Peoria, and Silver Star Chapter Order of the Eastern Star.
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