Bonnie Champion is a longtime organizer of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Beacon, which takes place on Monday (Jan. 15).
How did the parade get started?
In September 2013, Pete Seeger, then 93 years old, came to a Beacon Sloop Club meeting. He was worried that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was becoming a day off from school or work and that no one was recognizing such an incredible man who had changed the world. That was coming from the mouth of an incredible man who changed the world! I remember his exact words: “I’m going to have a parade.”
I had just retired after 33 years as a teacher, so we worked together. He asked me to start with the Black Baptist churches, because they already had a community celebration and we added the parade. He actually lived so he could see the parade. He was very sick that morning but he wanted so badly to be there. His daughter was driving him but had to bring him back home. He died a week later.
Did Pete see the parade as something more than a parade?
It’s actually a civil rights march — people standing up for what they believe in, marching peacefully and singing — in the same way the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery was a civil rights march. There’s a new documentary, Down by the Riverside, in which Pete explains why he sang: It was to support the causes that he believed in. It wasn’t for fun but to get those ideas across about peace, caring for other people and taking care of the world. But singing is a lot of fun, too!
The day includes a student essay contest. How did that begin?
I suggested the contest, because that way teachers will be teaching about Martin Luther King Jr., the kids will be writing about him and they will come and participate in the parade. Each year we find a quote from Dr. King and ask the students to write about what was going on in the world at that time. Why did Martin Luther King say that? What does it mean to you? The winners are judged by the content of their essays, not sentence structure, spelling or punctuation.
What does Dr. King’s message mean to you?
A student last year wrote, “Martin Luther King wanted to change the world. That’s a big job!” Isn’t that amazing? He was a winner. It’s terrible how Black people were treated and are still treated. My son is a chef in Savannah, Georgia, and when I visit, I see that prejudice is still there. People are not treated according to their character. What Dr. King went through and how he was treated — the kids are appalled when they learn about it. He also pairs well with Pete Seeger, because Pete changed the world, too. He fought for women, unions, civil rights, the environment. He worked for peace. I have tremendous respect for both of them and I try to live my life the way they did.
We hear you’ve swum across the Hudson River 14 times. True?
Yes! It’s a mile and a quarter, but you swim more than that because you’re dealing with the tide. One of Pete’s dreams was to have a floating swimming pool, because the river is so much cleaner now. There is a floating pool at Pete and Toshi Seeger Park and it’s free, Tuesdays through Sundays, in the summer, and the annual swim across the Hudson supports that. This year would have been my 15th year, at age 76, but I fell and broke my hand. I’m back to 100 percent, but I couldn’t swim.
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