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Denver’s story of Marade madness

Rioters destroy a Denver police cruiser after violence erupts between KKK members and counter-demonstrators on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 20, 1992. Photo: Kent Meireis, Denver Post

Rioters destroy a Denver police cruiser after violence erupts between KKK members and counter-demonstrators on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 20, 1992. Photo: Kent Merireis, Denver Post

He was Denver’s first black mayor. His wife, Wilma, fought tirelessly in the legislature to pass a law recognizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday. Yet, in 1992, Wellington Webb threatened to cancel Denver’s annual Marade (march/parade) honoring the memory of the civil rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

That January, despite Webb’s protests, a court permitted the Ku Klux Klan to rally on the same day as the Marade. As more than 12,000 people finished marching, violence erupted between counter-demonstrators, KKK members and police.

“Everything was peaceful until we reached Civic Center Park,” recalls Dan Grossman (JD ’93). “It happened so quickly. Racial slurs were hurled and a group of marchers headed up the hill toward the KKK. Cops on horseback appeared, fences fell down and the tear gas canisters came out. It was like a newsreel from the ’60s.”

More than 20 people were arrested, and Mayor Webb considered canceling the event in the future if organizers and police couldn’t find a way to avoid the violence.

“I was at the national march in Atlanta and was horrified when I saw the news on TV,” recalls Tracey Peters, assistant to the associate provost of campus life at DU. “I think that’s one of the reasons the Denver Marade has since become so successful. People were so mortified by what happened, we wanted to show the world that Denver really isn’t like that.”

In the following years, Denver continued to make national news on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Every third Monday of January, as many as 30,000 people took to the streets, making it one the largest celebrations in the country.

“You get an amazing feeling of uniting with people,” says longtime marcher Helen Littlejohn (BA ’76). “It’s like a reunion with family and friends. But it’s also a time for reflection. You’re with thousands of people, but you can also be by yourself.”

“It serves as a wonderful example to our students of a diverse community coming together to support social justice and civil rights,” says Glenn Fee, associate director of DU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL). “Last year, many of DU’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, queer and questioning students marched and were warmly embraced by fellow civil rights activists. It was an important day for them.”

“Although the campus is closed for Martin Luther King Day, we emphasize that it isn’t a day off, that students should make the day special and meaningful,” says Katie Symons, associate director of CCESL, which coordinates DU’s Marade contingent and a week of related activities on campus. “They’re able to relate to Dr. King’s work because they’re still seeing a lot of the same issues, primarily the war in Iraq and civil liberties. The dream is still alive, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”

“Denver has a very curious racial history,” Grossman says. “The Webbs made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a great celebration. Yet, I live in a neighborhood named after another mayor: Stapleton. He was a member of the KKK. The Marade is a testament to who we are and how far we’ve come as a city.”

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