A preview of Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Colorado

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Photo by Andy Colwell/Special to CPR News
Denver calf roping cowboy Maurice Wade, 74, is pictured with his horse, Beer Money, in Bennett, CO, during an interview with CPR News on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

At a stable in Bennett earlier this week, 74-year-old Maurice Wade prepared his American Quarter Horse, Beer Money, for a highly anticipated trip to Denver. 

Once he’s adorned in a fancy engraved western saddle, Beer Money will get to use his special skills next Monday night, when Wade will be on his back, trying to catch and rope calves in the MLK Jr. African-American Heritage Rodeo at the Denver Coliseum.

It’s part of the National Western Stock Show — and an annual event in a week’s worth of celebrations honoring slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The 12-year-old horse got its name, according to Wade, for a reason that, at least to him, is clear: “The only money you’re gonna win rodeoing is enough money for a beer and a hamburger,” Wade said. “That’s all we need is a beer and a hamburger!” 

Wade’s time doing the event is in the 10-second range, whereas some young competitors can ride their horses and get a calf on the ground in under seven seconds. That’s why Wade is going there to have a good time, catch up with his friends in the Black rodeoing community, and perhaps take home enough money to put toward the next rodeo.

Although Beer Money wasn’t too feisty while going through his paces on his ranch about 30 miles east of Denver, this was not surprising to Wade. He said the horse he bought for $6,000 is generally docile but will be geared up to perform as soon as he gets into the ring.

“This right here? This is not him in the arena,” Wade said. “When he gets in the arena, knowing he’s going to be in competition, he perks up. It’s like he likes his job!”

Photo by Andy Colwell/Special to CPR News
Denver calf roping cowboy Maurice Wade, 74, and his horse, Beer Money, in Bennett, CO, demonstrate riding and roping during an interview with CPR News on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Calf-roping 101

The calf-roping event requires the person on horseback to lasso a running calf around the neck and put him down on the ground. Cowboys who actually caught calves this way to administer medicine to them, for example, used to compete with other cowboys to see who could do it fastest, which is how it became a rodeo event, said Wade.

The event is controversial for animal rights groups like PETA, which cite neck injuries and terror suffered by the animals as reasons for it to be banned. Rodeo enthusiasts, however, point to strict guidelines for monitoring the animals, and studies showing injury rates for the calves of just one in 1,400. Other studies, however, have found that calves do experience stress in the event. 

Wade demonstrated with a wooden calf at the stable. The calf gets a head start out of the gate, followed by Wade on horseback, using a rope to catch the calf. Then, once the rope is around the calf’s neck, Wade dismounts.

Photo by Andy Colwell/Special to CPR News
Tie-downs and other tack belonging to Denver calf roping cowboy Maurice Wade and his horse Beer Money are pictured in his horse trailer in Bennett, CO, during an interview with CPR News on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

“When my left foot hits the ground, my horse is backing up,” Wade, who lives in Denver, said. “I bring the calf to me; I throw the calf on the ground, and I tie him down real quick for time. That’s what tie-down calf-roping is.”

Wade retired from full-time work five years ago and played minor-league football in the past, so calf-roping fits right in. 

“When I couldn’t play football anymore, I needed to do something where you can tackle and throw and feel good about yourself after you do it, so I started calf-roping,” he said.  

Photo by Andy Colwell/Special to CPR News
Denver calf roping cowboy Maurice Wade, 74, is pictured in Bennett, CO, after an interview with CPR News on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

A history of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The rodeo is just one of many events taking place across Colorado to commemorate King, who was born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929.

He was one of the country’s leading civil rights activists — perhaps best known for his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial, which eloquently expressed his vision for Black Americans being able to achieve the dream of equality with white citizens. 

King was shot and killed in 1968 while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old. 

Colorado was one of few states to celebrate King’s birthday as a holiday statewide before the country as a whole. President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1983, but it wasn’t celebrated until three years later, in 1986. Before that, on April 4, 1985, Colorado's Governor Dick Lamm signed a state bill into law, making it a state holiday.

Marade 2020
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Elected officials joined arms at the 2020 Marade marking the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Denver, Jan. 20, 2020.

How Colorado will celebrate and honor the day

Colorado celebrates King for not just one day, but with a week of activities in Aurora, Denver and other locations that began last Monday, and will continue through the national holiday this Monday.

In Denver’s City Park, at the site of the “I Have a Dream” Monument near the intersection of 17th Avenue and York Road, a “Marade” — a combination of a march and a parade — begins at 10:45 a.m. on Monday and concludes at Civic Center, according to Vern L. Howard, the chair of the commission to commemorate the civil rights leader. 

He said the Marade takes as few as 45 minutes and as long as two hours, depending on participation and the election season. Last year, 80,000 people made the march down Colfax Ave., and this year, Howard said, the number of people running for mayor — more than two dozen — could prompt a large turnout. 

“As long as the holiday has been around, during election years, our participation grows [exponentially],” he said. 

Later on Monday, King will be honored at 12:30 p.m. with a wreath-laying ceremony in Aurora. Flowers will be laid at the foot of the statue of King in the plaza outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Aurora.

Courtesy of Chartashia Miller
Chartashia Miller and others at the 2022 wreath-laying.

Live symphony music will be playing during the ceremony, according to Chartashia Miller, the liaison between the city of Aurora and the commission organizing the MLK Day celebration, who will also emcee the ceremony. 

“It is intended to convey what Dr. King wanted us to do, and that is unity,” Miller said. “And so the city of Aurora started doing this 37 years ago, to bring the community together so that we can remember his dream and that we can live out the things that he wanted us to do and to have his name carry on.”

After the wreath-laying, a free turkey dinner will be served in the same plaza, offered by Jeff Fard, a community organizer who goes by brother jeff and runs a cultural center in the Five Points section of Denver. The food will come from local catering companies and given out to thousands of people by volunteers who signed up to serve on brother jeff’s website.

The “No One Should Be Hungry, Period” event isn’t specifically for people who are food-insecure, brother jeff said.

“We’ll be giving away more than 2,000 free meals” to those who want to share a communal meal on the plaza with other people remembering King, have it delivered, or take a carton of food away with them.

“It’ll be a hearty meal made with love,” he said. “This is an opportunity where everybody sets down their titles, their divisions, their differences, and in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, we all agree on one thing: no one should be hungry, period. And that’s why we put period at the end, because that eliminates any qualifications. It doesn’t matter if you can afford it, if you can’t afford it, if you don’t want to cook, if you just want to experience community, whatever the reason is, we as a community want to show up in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Courtesy of brother jeff
A scene from brother jeff's free meal in 2022.

By Monday, the official holiday, a few events will already have occurred. 

Last Tuesday, violist Basil Vendryes, who leads the nine-person viola section with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, was awarded with a Humanitarian award by the state MLK Holiday commission during a recital at Boettcher Hall. 

The New York native with roots in Jamaica, who is in his early 60s, said he was thrilled to learn he’d be honored. 

Colorado Symphony Portraits: Basil Vendryes, Viola. (Photo by Peter Lockley)
Courtesy of Basil Vendryes
Basil Vendryes, who was awarded with a Humanitarian award by the state MLK Holiday commission.

“I mean, I was like, why me? I’m honored for sure. I feel very grateful that the commission thinks highly enough of my work in Denver and throughout the country that they would award me something like this,” said Vendryes, who has been a part of the orchestra since 1993 and who teaches as an adjunct at the University of Denver.

In a recent interview, he said he is the only Black member of the 80-musician orchestra.

This weekend features a new event, a youth summit in Aurora with keynote speaker Barbara Shannon-Banister, a retired educator and community relations worker who served for 25 years in Aurora. She envisions her keynote speech as more of a fireside chat with young people who will continue with civil rights into the future.

“I would rather be in a rocking chair and have them sitting around on pillows just talking to me … about what they would do and how they would do it, how they would enhance the commemoration,” Shannon-Banister said. “How it got started, what can I do, how they would pick up the banner or baton and keep it going.” 

Photo by Andy Colwell/Special to CPR News
Denver calf roping cowboy Maurice Wade, 74, poses for a portrait with his horse, Beer Money, in Bennett, CO, during an interview with CPR News on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

'Beat them young boys? That’ll be right up my alley'

What Wade, also known as Mo, wants to keep going is the fun he has with tie-down calf roping, although he wouldn’t mind a win.

He knows it’s not a given, considering that the septuagenarian will be competing with 35 other calf-ropers, many of them who are younger and have clocked faster times in other competitions.

If it does happen, though, he said, “I’ma be feeling great! Beat them young boys? That’ll be right up my alley.”

And the purse — its size conditional on the number of competitors and sponsors — will be enough for at least a beer and a hamburger. 

Photo by Andy Colwell/Special to CPR News
Denver calf roping cowboy Maurice Wade, 74, walks his horse Beer Money toward a riding arena to demonstrate calf-roping technique in Bennett, CO, during an interview with CPR News on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.