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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Gainesville residents were encouraged to spend their long weekend flexing their political muscles at this year's Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday March.

More than 3,000 people gathered on the Downtown Community Plaza on Monday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a march and presentation.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida offered several opportunities for attendees to vote or register to vote at the event.

Commission President Rodney J. Long emceed the march and persuaded many to exercise the right to vote.

"Today is empowerment Monday," Long said. "Today you have the right to the ballot. The question is, what are you going to do with it?"

The event's guest speaker was 17-year-old LeNonar Elaina Walton, the Edna M. Hart Keeper of the Dream Scholarship Award winner for 2008. She opened with a poem that her grandmother wrote for King that ended with a standing ovation from the crowd.

Walton, who is a senior at Buchholz High School, will be awarded $2,500 when she is accepted to her college of choice. She plans to attend UF.

Portions of King's speeches rumbled from a loudspeaker as people spent the morning and early afternoon registering to vote.

Those who participated in early voting for the presidential primaries and city elections received a free barbecue lunch.

Pam Carpenter, the supervisor of elections for Alachua County, said early voting coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day due to earlier primaries in Florida this year.

The event was an opportunity for people to vote early and avoid crowds on Jan. 29, when the polls officially open for the elections, Carpenter said. Early voting will continue until Saturday at 5 p.m., she said.

Members of UF's chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity rallied behind the voting efforts, handing out fliers and even registering themselves.

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Darryl Gresham, a UF junior and member of Phi Beta Sigma, said he admired King's legacy for "how he could say one thing and change everybody's demeanor," Gresham said.

Barbara Simmons was among the first at the registration table Monday.

A Gainesville resident since 1980, Simmons said she registered because it was time for a change in the country's political system. The 59-year-old said she believed her vote could make a difference in the upcoming elections.

Voting can promote unity among people of different races, Simmons said. "If you're voting, it means you're finally coming together and agreeing on something," she said.

As the crowd left the plaza and crowded into the streets, humanitarian and local legend Hazel "Sister Hazel" Williams was honored with a camellia bush in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Garden. She packed a few shovelfuls of dirt at the base of the bush, and then clipped a red blossom to keep.

As she walked to her car, Williams reflected on King's funeral in Atlanta nearly 40 years ago.

"Truly this man is a legacy," she said.

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