ON Tybee Island, there’s rarely a holiday on the calendar that isn’t marked with a parade down Butler Avenue. The most recent to join the beach community’s roster of processionals is in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which became an island tradition in 2014.
“Tybee loves parades—Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, the Pirate Festival—why not a parade for Dr. Martin Luther King?” asks Tybee MLK organizer Julia Ward. “We looked into it, formed a committee, and made it happen.”
That first cavalcade has grown from just a few floats led by then-Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson as grand marshal to over 20 entries, including local businesses, non-profits and individual citizens.
Members of the Savannah State University marching band always bring the joyful noise as participants and observers eventually make their way to the cafeteria at the YMCA complex, where entertainment and education await.
“It’s not just a parade, it’s an entire program,” says Ward, reminding that 2018 marks the parade’s five-year anniversary and the 50th commemoration of Dr. King’s assassination. “We are celebrating human rights on Tybee and in America.”
This year’s parade and celebration takes place on Saturday, January 6, a week before the official MLK holiday weekend. The processional will be headed up by Grand Marshall John Finney, who recently retired as the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Authority after 48 years.
Tybee’s first female Episcopal vicar, June Johnson, will serve as the mistress of ceremonies for the human rights program held at the YMCA. Local Rep. Buddy Carter is expected to make his usual appearance at the event.
“We bring together people from all walks of life—all religions, all political persuasions—as a whole in the beloved community, just like Dr. King described,” avows Ward.
In addition to exploring and celebrating the ideas and action of the Civil Rights hero, the program also honors local social justice warriors who have contributed to Tybee’s beloved community. Tybee’s director of finance, Angela Hudson, will receive special recognition as the first African American administrator in the history of the island.
“She keeps the city fiscally and financially sound and we want to thank her for a job well done,” Ward extols.
The winners of two essay contests will also be announced, with accompanying scholarships awards that memorialize posthumous gratitude: The high school contest carries the name of Imam Majid Faheem Ali, who led Savannah’s downtown Muslim community until his death, and the middle school contest honors educator and Tybee MLK founding member Elizabeth “Liz” Killorin. Both passed away in 2016.
(The High School essay winners are: First place, Camilla Burg, Islands High; Second place, Madeline Holt, Savannah Arts Academy; Third place, Anna Nguyen, Islands High. Middle School essay winners are: First place, Julia Emelett, Coastal Middle School; Second place, De’Anne Williams, Coastal Middle School; Third place, Jeremy Hall, Godley Station K-8 School.)
The Tybee MLK Dreamer Award sponsored by United Way and Hands on Savannah recognizes humanitarian efforts on the island, and this year the distinction goes to all of the citizens of Tybee Island.
“Because of the way we as a community have pitched in for each other with two hurricanes in 11 months,” says Ward, describing how neighbors cleared each other’s properties and offered shelter to each other in the aftermath of Matthew and Irma and continue to stock the Rising Tide Food Pantry.
When she isn’t planning the MLK parade, Ward, who has lived on Tybee Island for 20 years, champions human rights and decency in practical ways all year long. She helped found the organization Tybee Strong, which in addition to brokering local aid advocates for affordable housing on the island, and ran for City Council in November on zoning reform.
“I’m bemoaning the fact that my neighborhood has changed so much. There are so many vacation rentals, and it’s really affected the community. People who work on Tybee can’t afford to live here anymore,” she laments.
Though she lost the election, Ward remains committed to figuring out how to put into practice the ideals of Dr. King’s beloved community and equal opportunity for all.
“A successful community is built on people from all different socioeconomic backgrounds,” she says.
“We need that diversity on Tybee. It makes a community richer.”