As more than a thousand marchers met at noon Monday around the steps of Macon City Hall, 5-year-old Benjamin “B.J.” Jeron Ridley Jr. stood on a concrete partition, near his grandmother’s voter registration table, and raised a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. fastened to the top of a yardstick.
And throughout the singing and cheering, the speeches and closing prayer, he kept it held high.
“Your arms getting tired?” his father leaned over to ask at one point.
The boy just held it higher.
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“He was a good man who fought for civil rights,” B.J. said after the program.
As is customary for the annual march, groups marching from the east, west, north and south chanted and sang old spirituals as they converged on City Hall. The crowd appeared to be one of the annual event’s largest, topping 1,000 participants.
“We come here to make a statement: Freedom is not free,” the Rev. Richard Gammage, pastor of New Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, told the crowd. “Many have died. Blood has been shed. It’s time now to re-evaluate voter registration, voter education, voter orchestration and ultimately, voter demonstration. That means you go to the polls and vote.”
Mayor Robert Reichert said the marching is a fitting way to “realize how far we have come and look and see how far we have to go to build a more just community and build a community of love and brotherhood.”
Prior to the march, about 50 people had gathered at the Booker T. Washington Community Center, where the Rev. Billy McFadden, pastor of Greater Allen Chapel AME Church, gave marching orders through a megaphone. He delayed the group, representing the north side of Macon, because it had a shorter distance to walk and had arrived early in previous years.
“We feel it’s important because of the continued struggle for justice on a lot of different levels,” McFadden said of the march. “Dr. King, while he fought for civil rights for the disenfranchised, he also had deep concern for those who were poor. Poverty and the poor were just as much of the struggle, and it remains so today.
“That’s why you’re seeing people here from all walks of life, of different color. They, too, share that concern for helping others who are poor, who are on the fringe of society.”
About a dozen of the marchers in the north group were white, and the number at City Hall was about 100.
At Booker T. Washington, Kaleisha Pertillo bundled up daughters Chole, 2, and Tayla, 6, and sons Albruce 12, and Brandon, 11, before setting off.
“This is my first time marching,” their mother said
Rudy Mendes has made the march an annual outing with his 13-year-old son, Jahi. This year they brought along some younger neighbors.
Mendes said the march is not just important to do as a family.
“It’s important as a community,” he said. “We get to kind of re-enact history, and this teaches the kids how important it is you come together, and that if you come together as a community in a peaceful way, you can accomplish great things.”
Another marcher, Cynthia Smith, a teacher at Central Georgia Technical College and Milledgeville native, marched with her late father, Oscar Davis, on her mind. Davis was a Baldwin County commissioner and a community activist.
“It’s been 12 years since he died, so I’m marching in remembrance of him and Dr. Martin Luther King,” Smith said.
Others marchers took advantage of the stage to push their personal causes. A number carried union-affiliated signs and banners, and others wore signs complaining of unfair wages and other work-related issues.
At City Hall, Dorothy Ridley, B.J.’s grandmother, sought out new voters. She registered 15 to 20 during the event, and she hoped to register more at the memorial service that followed at Steward Chapel AME Church.
The march was a family affair for the Ridleys. B.J. was there with his father and his grandfather, three generations of Benjamins.
“He comes every time,” said the boy’s father, Benjamin Jeron Ridley Sr.
The Macon march was just one of a number of events in the midstate to commemorate the King holiday, including an early morning march in Warner Robins where marchers hiked from City Hall to Warner Robins CME Church for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast.
To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.