Turnout Is Low but Spirits Are High at King Parade

Times Staff Writer

It was a miserable day for a parade. The chill gusts of wind staggered spectators, ripped souvenirs from children's hands and threatened to topple the smaller members of the Compton YMCA Drill Team. Groused a balloon salesman, "I lost more than I sold."

Yet from Crenshaw Boulevard to the Coliseum along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on Monday, knots of people--3,500 by the Los Angeles Police Department's estimate--endured the discomfort to watch the third annual Kingdom Day Parade, celebrating the slain civil rights leader's birthday. They cheered the colorful floats and the high school bands and the Budweiser Clydesdales and the celebrities and the grand marshal, South Gate beer distributor Edison Lara.

Another Reason to Cheer

They should have also cheered Larry Grant.

Grant was the short guy in a Windbreaker, tennis shoes and baseball cap who scurried frantically down the middle of the street, moving from spot to spot near the reviewing stand at 2nd Avenue. He shouted greetings or instructions ("Faster, man, you're dragging it!') to each of the scores of entrants. By walkie-talkie he kept tabs on how the parade was moving along its three-mile route.

He was tired. He had been for days. But he was smiling--"It's beautiful!"--because once again, as it does each year, his vision of staging a parade on King's birthday had come true.

Grant is a 62-year-old retired banker who threw his first Kingdom Day Parade in 1981 in San Diego. In 1986, the first year that King's birthday was celebrated as a federal holiday, he added a parade here.

Larger Each Year

The Los Angeles parade has grown each year despite a noticeable lack of enthusiasm from City Hall (Mayor Bradley turned down an invitation to ride in this year's parade and only one city official, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, appeared) and from the local chapter of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which for more than a decade has organized an annual week of events to pay tribute to King.

"We do not sponsor the parade," an SCLC spokeswoman said icily last week to correct a reporter's mistaken assumption. The civil rights organization culminated its 11th annual King Week Festival on Monday night with a black-tie-optional dinner at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel downtown.

(Raymond Johnson, president of the local chapter of the other major civil rights group, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, rode in Monday's parade.)

Career in Banking

Grant, who has lived in Carson since the early 1940s, attended Harbor College and spent 20 years in the Army. After leaving the service he entered banking.

In 1979 he was chief executive officer of Pacific Coast Bank in San Diego, living there during the week and commuting back to Carson on weekends, when the bank's president, David Geiger, suggested an independent promotion to inspire black children.

Grant said he suggested a San Diego parade honoring King "because of his role in contemporary history and what he'd done for all the people of the world." Geiger told him to take time off from work to form the nonprofit National Cultural Corp. The two men dreamed of making enough money to award scholarships to minority high school students in California, and of one day adding parades in Oakland and Los Angeles.

Crowd of 12,000

But Geiger died in 1980, and Grant was on his own. The first San Diego parade, held long before King's birthday was recognized as a holiday by most government agencies, drew about 12,000 people, Grant said.

Grant stopped commuting to San Diego in 1983, but his nonprofit organization continued to run the annual parade there. Each year brought increasing public attention to King's birthday as the drive to make it a national holiday gained momentum, and Grant was eager to stage a parade in Los Angeles.

"I've always been amazed that nobody had done it yet," he said. "I could not believe it."

In 1985 he was watching another parade here when he spotted an old friend, Celes King III.

"He'd been my banker when I was in Los Angeles," King remembered. "(Larry) caught my eye and said, 'Hello, Celes, let's get together and put on an MLK parade.' I said, 'You got it,' and by then the parade had moved on." Eventually, the men met and planned.

Parade Chairman

On Monday, as he has in each of the three Los Angeles Kingdom Day parades, King, a prominent bail bondsman and longtime activist in civil rights issues and Republican Party politics, rode in the first car as parade chairman.

King said it troubles him that the parade has not received more unified support, "but it will go on. "This is the only significant (King-related) activity where people can come and attend and it costs them nothing."

For his part, Grant contends, "I'm getting all the cooperation I need." Last week, before the weather turned bad, he had visions of hundreds of thousands of people massing along King Boulevard for the parade. But Monday's low turnout will not spoil his optimism.

"I'm a very goal-oriented person," he said. "I had a lot of people tell me I wouldn't be successful in San Diego, that not enough people would support a parade. When you tell me no, I'm going to prove you wrong. That's the kind of person I am."

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