The Ballou High School marching band in Washington has performed in major celebrations before, but the parade honoring Martin Luther King Jr. has special meaning.

“Dr. King marched for our freedom and our rights,” said Darne’sha Walker, a 12th-grade trombonist at Ballou High School, “and now we’re celebrating and saying thank you by marching for him.”

The Majestic Marching Knights, Ballou’s marching band, will lead the January 16 parade, through the school’s own neighborhood, on one of the first streets in America named for the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Band marching down street in parade (© Getty Images/Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Members of the Ballou High School marching band strut their stuff. (© Getty Images/Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

For communities such as the band’s Anacostia neighborhood in southeast Washington, King’s birthday is cause to celebrate the man, his work and his legacy. In 1979, Anacostia put on its first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade — six years before King was recognized with a national holiday.

The student musicians of the Majestic Marching Knights take great pride in this neighborhood and its long tradition of honoring King.

“Dr. King made people believe in what he preached,” said Christopher Allen, a 12th-grader who plays a sousaphone. “It’s just like playing an instrument: You have to make your audience and people believe in what you are doing.”

With a tiny budget and instruments sometimes repaired with duct tape, Ballou’s marching band has placed highly in national band competitions, marched in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, and played at the second inaugurations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“[Martin Luther King Jr.’s] voice was so powerful it changed our lives as a black community,” said Ersela Rauch, a baritone saxophonist. “We want to continue his dream, to have people hear his voice through our music.”

A 2007 documentary tells the Majestic Marching Knights’ story.