Young Leaders Take Charge at This Year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Parade

It’s not just a day off: Communities come together for the country’s annual tribute to the civil rights advocate

In the past, the grand marshals chosen to head the Las Vegas Martin Luther King Jr. Parade were longtime community members usually at the end of their careers. But like many recent political and social movements, younger leaders are taking the lead this year.

“I think people will be inspired by the energy of this year’s grand marshals,” says Wendell Williams, the founder of Las Vegas’ parade.

Tya Mathis-Coleman, who works in recruitment for the Clark County School District, and Pastor Kelsey West are this year’s grand marshals at the 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. January 15 in Downtown Las Vegas.

“Grand marshals were always people who were pillars of the community,” Mathis-Coleman says. “They were always the people who I wanted to be like. It’s a honor to be one of them.”

Throughout the three decades of putting on the event, Williams says, things have changed. “Our first one was so pathetic,” he says. “We barely had 13 entries. I told one of our members to jump on the fire engine and that he would be our grand marshal.”

Williams, a former state assemblyman who worked to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state-recognized holiday in 1987, now has a tough time narrowing parade applicants down to about 120 entries—he says he’s still receiving requests and will likely have to turn applicants away.

In addition to the parade, King Week was created to host a variety of events to honor the civil rights leader and inspire younger generations. The Young Dreamers Award Program, which is scheduled January 19 at Second Baptist Church, honors students from each grade level at 22 Clark County schools. “These are the students who best emulate Dr. King,” Williams says.

But still, it’s the parade that gets the biggest acknowledgment, as well as the crowds. “There is a power in that day,” Mathis-Coleman says. “You see people from all different backgrounds coming together. This day really unites people.”

She remembers the early mornings when her family would wake her up to attend the Martin Luther King Jr. events.

“I realized quickly that there were few African Americans who we learned about in elementary school,” Mathis-Coleman says. “Being a young African American girl, I realized for [Dr. King] to have his own day was very significant.”

Being at the parade also shaped her worldview. “You would see prominent African Americans from the community,” Mathis-Coleman says. “They were lawyers or people running for office. So I was a child surrounded by that energy.”

Once just part of the crowd, as an adult she began participating in the parade, working to design floats and arrange dance routines for her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.

Williams says West, a pastor at Nehemiah Ministries Christian Church, was also chosen as the other grand marshal because of the impact he has had in the community, in particular for helping youth access higher education.

Williams says the parade is especially needed in such turbulent times. “People think of this as honoring Dr. King’s legacy,” he adds. “This is more of a blueprint on how to build a bridge and bring unity.”

Vegas Seven