Marie Davenport and her husband, Rudi Schneider, braved the brisk, early morning air flowing across the Potomac River’s Tidal Basin at the foot of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, excited to celebrate the birthday of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a wreath-laying ceremony Jan. 20 in West Potomac Park in Southwest Washington, D.C.
Around her neck, Davenport wore a laminated photo of her daughter from a 1971 newspaper clipping as a reminder of a day spent on the Mall as a young mother, calling for King’s birthday to become a national holiday.
“In the picture, the headline read ‘A call to action,’ with a picture of my daughter looking as though she was shedding a tear for Dr. King,” said Davenport.
“My daughter and I were downtown in front of the District Building protesting for Doctor King’s birthday to become a national holiday, before I was scheduled to go to Germany to be a teacher with the Department of Defense more than forty years ago,” said Davenport. “My daughter was crying because it was very cold that day. I’ve visited this memorial before but this is my first time being able to come back for the celebration of his birthday as a federal holiday. So, it’s a great celebration,” said an exuberant Davenport, smiling brightly, and squeezing her husband’s hand.
“I also participated in March on Washington in 1963. So, I’ve always been a follower of King and I felt that because of his contributions his birthday should be honored by becoming a federal holiday.” Davenport was also among thousands of Americans who participated in the 50th Anniversary March held Aug. 28, 2013.
“During the (1971 demonstration), there were a lot of people participating and it was very emotional because of his assassination and all of the contributions that Dr. King had made. People wanted to have a day for Dr. King to be recognized for all he had done. So, I was part of that movement and I have celebrated Martin Luther King Day every single year,” said Davenport proudly.
As old gospel songs played, Davenport reflected upon moving to the District from Mississippi.
“I went to segregated schools in Mississippi, so racism was not new to me. But things in D.C. were really, really bad in 1971 with all of the protests, because of jobs and injustice; which unfortunately we are still experiencing today,” said Davenport.
Davenport recounted an episode during the early seventies, while she was living in the District and worked as manager of Albert’s Beauty Salon on University Boulevard in Langley Park, when she experienced prejudice of a more violent and frightening sort than she had known in Mississippi.
She arrived at work to find that eggs had been thrown all over the front of the salon. The next day, the storefront window glass was shattered.
“The next day a bomb went off inside the salon, near where I was working,” said Davenport. “It was really a bad time then. There were a lot of things that happened during that time. One night when I was on my way to work, someone tried to run me off the road.”
Although it has been more than four decades since Dr. King’s birthday became a federal holiday, Davenport is still troubled about race relations in America today.
“In fact, some of the things that are happening today are very much like it was then. It’s sad to me,” said Davenport. “We need to talk to each other more. I think communication is very important because oftentimes when we don’t know people,, we just assume we don’t like that person. But I think as a group it’s important for us to come together as a community so that we can talk. And it starts with the little children, and in the home; inviting people over that may not look like you, or they may be a different nationality.”
When she and her husband are in Germany, Davenport continues to spread that same philosophy of talking to children at the German schools, and adults alike. “Once you get to know people, you’ll see that we’re more alike than you thought,” said Davenport.
“I’ve learned a lot from my wife how it was in those days,” said Schneider. “Dr. Martin Luther King is widely known in Germany. We learned about him in school: Who he was, what he did and what he stood for. But it makes a great difference if you experience the whole event firsthand here, rather than being taught in school, and I appreciate it very much. I feel honored to be married to a woman who participated in the March on Washington and continues to spread his philosophy everywhere she goes.”
“When I met my husband’s parents they couldn’t speak English very well, but they understood the struggle of African-Americans in America. And I’m often asked to speak at the town hall there in Frankfurt, Germany,” said Davenport. “In fact, recently I told my story to them as a special guest and they wanted to honor Dr. King for the 50-year celebration. I love telling my story because people need to know that we need to move forward, not backwards.”
Among the official guests in attendance were D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray; Interior Secretary Sally Jewel; Harry E. Johnson Sr., Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation president and CEO; political leaders and the Men’s Choir from the People’s Community Baptist Church of Northeast Washington, D.C.