Under an open-and-shut sky and a light cool breeze, tens of thousands of people marched on San Antonio's Eastside on Monday, paying homage to the late Martin Luther King Jr. half a century after his fatal shooting and at a time when, as several speakers pointedly noted, the country appears politically more divided than ever.
President Donald Trump came under frequent criticism from the mostly Democratic speakers after the march, one of whom, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), accused him of "ugly racism" not only in relation to the latest White House controversy but in his policy and legislative initiatives at large.
“I want to encourage you to keep that [New Year's] resolution if it is about exercise. Exercise your right to march and assemble, and particularly exercise your right to vote," Doggett told the crowd at Pittman-Sullivan Park. "This march is mighty important, but we need a march to the polling place to throw the rascals out and to react to that ugly racism that has been coming right out of Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House.”
Speakers who took to the stage at the park after the 2.75-mile march called on attendees to take the fight for justice and equality well to local elections. They urged a focus not only on the 2020 presidential race, but on recruiting and electing like-minded candidates to school boards, city councils, statehouses, and Congress to better reflect the country's increasing racial diversity.
Keynote speaker Roland Martin, a native Houstonian and television journalist and commentator, called out Trump and others who he said embrace King and his legacy publicly but attack civil rights daily through their legislation, policies, and votes. Several speakers pointed to Trump's reported description of Haiti and African nations as "s---hole countries" as evidence of his true feelings about equal rights. (The president has since denied he said it, but numerous attendees at the meeting have stood by their descriptions of his remarks.)
"On this day, you have folks who would have never in their life marched with, agreed with, voted with anything [King] believed in. But they are real quick to send press releases out or tweet out comments about how great he was," Martin said, criticizing U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) along with the president for releasing statements or – in Trump's case – a video extolling the work and legacy of King.
"We cannot allow people to continue to pimp MLK Day for their purposes if they are unwilling to stand up for the very things that he believed in," Martin said to strong applause. "You can’t say he was a great man but you vote against health care for all. You can’t say he was a great man but you want to break up families and deport folks from this country. You can’t say he was a great man when you are involved with folks who believe in voter suppression. You cannot say he was a great man if you are unwilling to stand up for civil rights in 2018.
"I am sick and tired of people pimping Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement for their own causes," he continued. "It is time to say, 'no more.'”
Billed as the largest MLK Day march in the country, the event featured a who's who of local elected officials from all levels of government, including Doggett and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas); statehouse members Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) and Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio); San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council members; former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a Democratic candidate for governor; and Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood and Sheriff Javier Salazar. (Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff did not participate after having undergone a "really minor medical procedure" on Friday, said his spokesman, T.J. Mayes.)
Calling San Antonio a city that "does not stand down from racism, xenophobia, and bigotry," Nirenberg further described it as "a city where the cause of the Confederacy is no longer glorified by monuments in public squares. Although he has been gone for 50 years, Dr. King’s words are perhaps as powerful today as they were when he said them. Because we continue to fight his fight against inequality.”
Former San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor also attended, receiving one of the only standing ovations from the crowd after receiving the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Achievement Award. "I'm just so grateful that the Lord gave me the opportunity to serve my adopted hometown through the City Council [and as mayor] for eight years," Taylor said from the stage. "Let's continue working to make the dream a reality."
Apart from the officials, the event – which organizers said drew some 200,000 attendees – felt more like a giant family reunion. Marchers of all ages walked arm-in-arm, holding banners and signs, pushing babies in strollers or holding toddlers on their hips. Some elderly marchers walked, a few rode portable scooters; one man motored along playing King's "Dream" speech from a speaker mounted on the back of his ride.
Groups walking represented colleges and nonprofit organizations, businesses, corporations, and churches. There was at least one protest, but a small one.
Just east of the Interstate 10 overpass, a group of about 25 SATX4 activists stood in the road holding a Black Lives Matter banner and signs with the names of people across the U.S. killed during encounters with police. "What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now," they chanted, holding up their fists. Some in the crowds chanted with them and held up their fists, even as they walked around the activists.
Otherwise, marchers came in loose-knit groups of friends and family.
"Everybody here's family," said Darryl Woods, 56, a self-employed contractor who said members of the Clay, Woods, and Nelson families, among others, have been gathering at the house every MLK Day for 37 years.
King "spoke for our freedom," Woods said, adding that he loves how San Antonio's march stands out nationally for its size. "It's a big deal."
For the past eight years, 56-year-old Janice Brock, a child advocate and professional seamstress, has been handing out water to marchers, she said. This year her 14-year-old granddaughter, Kaleece, joined her at what used to be Brock's parent’s house on MLK Drive. The house has since been sold, but the new owners still let her camp out in front. The first year, they gave out 320 bottles. This year they had 1,270 bottles to distribute, some of which were donated.
“I wanted to teach my granddaughters about giving back besides just saying this was a school day out,” Brock said.
Before the march began at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, several marchers from the Eastside neighborhood gathered at the home of Jackline Nobles, 73, whose front yard at the corner of Bookertee Road and Martin Luther King Drive was filled with breakfast smells – eggs, bacon, carne asada, pork chops, biscuits, and fruit. Nobles said they had been working on the spread since 3 a.m. "I just hope everyone will be happy and have a great day," said Nobles, a retired preschool teacher.
Fred Anderson, 71, was among a group of people riding a 1966 bus that replicates those of the civil rights era. At one point, Nirenberg came in to shake hands.
“We’ve seen an awful lot of change," Anderson said. "When I started out as a freedom rider I was 15 years old. We’ve seen the election of a black president. The problem is we have a new administration, a new president, a new time. And all of a sudden, all that we’ve gained is being rolled back. People have to realize this is a continuing struggle, otherwise we’re going backwards."
Anderson said his dream for 2018 is “that we have a strong enough movement that we had in the past so we can continue the progress instead of being pushed backwards.”
“I’ve been to just about every one of these,” said Patrick Evans, 62, a retired documentary photographer and former staff member at St. Philip's College.
“This is a very local-level thing – they come out because it is their community.”
Bexar County’s population is only 8.5 percent black, yet the march is the largest in the U.S., Evans said, which speaks to the power of the community.
“Even if you get a few hipsters out here, you mainly get family and community leaders.”
"Every time it's good – every time!" said Anthony Bledsoe, 33, carrying a plate of bacon and biscuits drenched in hot sauce. He said the gathering is meant for all races. "It's just everybody coming together," said Bledsoe, a landscaper. "There's a lot of violence around here, but today it just seems to cease."
Passing out water to marchers in front of the Dorie Miller Center, supervisor Bettye Miles, 75, didn’t stop what she was doing to advocate for her Center and the role it plays in the Eastside community. “It has been, what, 30, 40, 50 years since the 'I Have A Dream Speech,' and we still don’t have equality,” Miller said.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) took a quick break from what she said was her seventh time marching to talk about her favorite part of the day. "Just to see all the San Antonians come together and do this ... I just love it," she said.
Another marcher, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), said the march makes him feel "just pride, more than anything ... It makes you pause and think that we should be doing more together than we do apart."
Carlos Antonio Raymond, who is running for the State Senate District 19 seat, immigrated to the U.S. from Panama in 1969 and said he served 25 years in the military. Addressing Trump's recent remarks, including "the comment he made about our country being nasty and a mess," Raymond said he wants to help other immigrants assimilate and contribute to the U.S. the way he did. "Prove people wrong," he said. "You came here for a purpose," he said.
City Councilman Cruz Shaw, whose District 2 encompasses most of San Antonio's historically black neighborhoods, said the importance of the march is to focus on communication and acceptance. “Sometimes you can't accept someone that you don’t understand or communicate with," he said. "Let’s open that dialogue, respect one another, and let’s progress and move forward so that everyone has an opportunity for prosperity in this country.”
Saharia Paillett-Hill brought her son to the march Monday – a first time for both of them. Paulette-Hill said she marches because others can’t.
“I’m walking not just for me, but for my family and my son.” As her son stopped to pick up a rock, Paillett-Hill said her son was tired and doesn’t understand the meaning of the day now, but will in the future.
Rivard Report staff members Emily Donaldson, Brendan Gibbons, Jeff Sullivan, and Beth Frerking compiled this report.