"You are LATE," Quincy Quarterman Sr. said to me, while we watched last Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. Observance Day parade.
He wasn't talking about my arrival time of 11:15 a.m. for the 10:00 a.m. parade.
Quarterman was responding to my confession that, despite moving back to Savannah 15 years ago, this was my first-ever MLK Day parade.
"I bet you go to the St. Patrick's Day parade every year, don't you?" he said, giving me a friendly "You Are So Busted" look.
I deserved it. I was years late to the MLK Day party, and I have been missing out.
I met Quarterman, his son and two nephews as we watched the parade. During our conversation he allowed that he hasn't been to the St. Patrick's Day parade in about 20 years, but he never misses the MLK Day event.
We both had plenty of excuses for our parade going habits, but our unstated-but-visible truth is that Quarterman is black and I'm white.
Welcome to Savannah.
I went to last Monday's parade wanting to experience the day without any preconceived ideas, but I found myself comparing the MLK Day parade with a lifetime of March 17 experiences.
Parking was easy, since I unwittingly chose to watch the parade at one of the least busy spots along the route. I found a legal on-street parking space two blocks from Habersham and Broughton Streets.
With 325 parade units, the Savannah MLK Day parade is the second largest in the country after Atlanta, based on the number of units, according to Parade Chair Carrie Howard. I missed the first 79 entries, including the City Council, the County Commission, and the parade grand marshals.
I probably also missed a few church groups, but no worries. There were plenty more to come. Dozens. Maybe a hundred.
Some church units rode by on elaborate floats. Some had rented tourist trolleys. Some drove their church vans. Most churches had large groups of walkers. Except for two or three church groups, all were African American.
Central Baptist sang "Oh Happy Day" in call-and-response style as they walked together. Greater Gaines AME Chapel sang "He Reigns Forever" in three part harmony.
The renowned, brass-heavy praise band of the United House of Prayer for All People was nowhere in sight, but as their truck drove past, a recording of "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees blasted from the sound system.
The Shriners, graying and balding men crammed into go-carts and wearing red Fezzes, buzzed past about halfway through the parade. These Shriners, all African-American, were from Omar Temple Number 21, Savannah's historically black Shriners group.
In the gaps between parade units I met Gene Johnson, a Union Camp retiree, who was greeted by what seemed like half the marchers in the parade. Tom and Vicki Potter, a white couple on vacation from Michigan, interrupted their month on Tybee to come to town for the celebration. Beach High School alumna MarQuita McNeal, a real estate broker from Atlanta, watched the parade with her 6-year old son Charles and their friend Spurgeon Goodrich, an eighth grader at DeRenne Middle School.
The dress code for the day had no color theme, but many wore Martin Luther King or Barack Obama T-shirts. Others wore their Sunday best. In Johnson High School's JROTC unit I saw the only St. Patrick's Day style beads and red lipsticked kiss mark of the day, on a white, female marcher in the unit.
Most every float, funeral home limo, and trolley used the same oval portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in their signage. Many also displayed a similar portrait of President Obama.
"If you notice, this is a MLK parade, but because of what's been accomplished, there are a lot of pictures of Barack," said MarQuita.
Savannah High School Band's all female dance team, with their precise, synchronized routine and aerial hand springs, were of particular interest to cousins and DeRenne Middle School students Quincy Quarterman Jr, Derrick McKinney and Travaris Holmes. Once the SHS band moved on, the boys were ready to go home.
Just like on St. Patrick's Day, the arrival of the horseback units and the city street sweepers marked the end of the parade. Within minutes, the crowds cleared, the barricades came down, and traffic was moving smoothly.
Quarterman, Sr. told me that families and church groups would be tailgating and barbecuing near MLK Jr. Boulevard and East Broad Street for most of the day. I'm looking forward to checking that out in 2011. I plan to get there in time to watch the whole parade go past.
I'm also looking forward to my next parade of 2010, on St. Patrick's Day. I always see lots of people I know at that parade. I hope that this year, Quincy Quarterman Sr. will be one of them.
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