When former state lawmaker Wilma Webb pushed through a bill in 1984 to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Colorado — the first celebration of its kind anywhere in the country — she saw a future that looked a lot like the world the reverend imagined in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
But flash forward to 2020, she said, and issues that the revolutionary social rights activist sought to overcome, such as racial and economic inequalities, have persisted.
“When I first envisioned having this march, I didn’t know that [30-some] years later we would be trying to get some of the same things changed that we tried to get way back when Dr. King was alive,” she said during her keynote address at the 35th annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Denver.
Today, she said, "his dream still has not been realized."
The so-called Marade — a combination of a march for civil rights and parade celebrating King’s life — was held by the MLK Colorado Holiday Commission and drew tens of thousands to City Park on Monday morning. The annual celebration has historically been one of the country’s largest gatherings to honor King.
Countless leaders attended the commemoration, with several joining Webb in delivering keynote addresses.
“We must build upon [King's] good works,” Gov. Jared Polis said before the march began. “We have to work together to build a better society.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock also gave an impassioned speech, during which he credited King for paving the path that made it possible for him, an African American, to lead the city of Denver.
Hancock called the crowd to “march with purpose” and not to “sit idly by while people are dehumanized.”
“March for the homeless man who’s in City Park today,” he shouted. "March for the woman who is concerned about her job and afraid to speak up when she's been passed over time and time again for a promotion.”
Just a stone’s throw away from where the keynotes were taking place was a protest hosted by the Colorado Poor People’s Campaign and Black Lives Matter 5280. “Everybody’s got a right to live” was one of many lyrics the group chanted together, as they demanded that Denver’s urban camping ban be repealed.
The ban was recently ruled unconstitutional by a Denver County judge, but the Hancock administration is still enforcing it, pending an appeal.
“This is a crime,” said Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud. “The city is a criminal — not anyone who is surviving on the street right now without a home.”
She encouraged the group of about 60 protesters to continue to challenge the “cruel and unusual punishment” of criminalizing the homeless for being poor.
“We have to fight,” she said.
Leading the marade arm-in-arm were former governor and current U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper, along with Hancock, Polis and Eldrin Bell, who guarded King's body for 12 hours after he was assassinated.
Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod and Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold also linked up with the group during the marade.
Other leaders spotted throughout the morning included members of the Colorado Republican Committee and the Denver City Council.
A message that echoed throughout the celebration was the need for progress.
"We're not in a position to declare victory. I worry that, instead, we're losing ground," said Andrew Romanoff, former state House Speaker who is running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020.
"Colorado and the country need to do far more to combat poverty, to close the racial wealth gap, and to counter the effects of discrimination, from banking and housing to education and employment," he said. "We need to do more."