The Martin Luther King, Jr. March in San Antonio is consistently the highlight of January – it tops my birthday and New Year’s Day. As a high school teacher, I celebrate the holiday by bringing several dozen students to the march. They are often surprised to learn that our city hosts one of the largest MLK march in the country, and of course they ask: “Why?”
In the past, my first response was usually the weather: where else in the country would people want to walk three miles outdoors in mid-January?
But I’ve come to realize that it’s more than just sunny skies and T-shirt temperatures. San Antonians are comfortable in crowds. Not everyone falls into this camp, but thousands of natives are willing to – on af regular basis – fight traffic and compromise their physical boundaries for the opportunity to watch a parade (Battle of Flowers, Fiesta Flambeau), hear live music (Jazz’SAlive, Oyster Bake), view air shows (at Lackland or Randolph, now semi-annually), experience art (Luminaria), watch an outdoor movie (Slab Cinema), or eat a gordita (NIOSA).
What other city, upon winning the NBA championship, sees thousands of its residents take their families downtown (four times!) to stand on street corners at midnight while cars honk their horns? No riots here. While there have been isolated incidents of violence, such as the sniper at Fiesta in 1979, most events are very safe. It was a bit creepy to see police snipers on the roof of the Davis Scott YMCA on Monday, but I knew they were scanning the crowd with binoculars to protect against the threat of another random incident.
Because we have so many large events, our city has evolved to handle them. Traffic management was extensive, with streets blocked off and police directing walkers, bike riders, horses and cars through the area. Each year, the process gets fine-tuned: the drop-off point for the VIA bus shuttles is now half a mile from the back end of the starting point so new arrivals join the end instead of getting smushed into the middle. Thousands of people rode Park and Ride shuttles on Monday.
The VIA personnel managing these temporary bus stations were efficient and polite. I accidentally left a bag on one of the buses (with my car keys!), but didn’t discover it until I was back at my school. I went back to Pittman-Sullivan Park two hours later and the VIA supervisors not only knew where it was, they returned it to me and offered me a ride back to my parked car. With service like that, how can you not trust and appreciate our public sector employees?
Perhaps the most important reason San Antonio has the largest MLK March in the US is our Civil Rights history.
A friend who worked at the Davis Scott YMCA on the Eastside once told me that our city was segregated by race in the past, but integration happened here rather smoothly. An article by teacher and graduate student Charlott McReynolds says that sit-ins were planned at local department store lunch counters in 1960, but the business owners decided to de-segregate themselves the day before the sit-ins were to occur.
The strong presence of the military and Catholic institutions helped change racist attitudes, as they were among the first to integrate. While there are San Antonians recognized as civil rights leaders (Reverend Claude Black, for example), they faced little resistance from the local police or elected officials, so thankfully they did not receive the kind of national fame as other leaders who were harassed and arrested. Annually, students at my school take a week-long bus trip to study the Civil Rights movement, and they travel for an entire day to reach their first visitation site. This kind of education is key for students to understand the sacrifice and struggle of Americans throughout history.
Today, San Antonio is a majority-minority city. The group of teenagers I took to the March were Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Hispanic, African-American, White, and Asian; they speak English, Korean, Cantonese, Hebrew, Spanish and more. Behind our school group were a handful of Mennonites and a large group of Buddhists. The diversity of this city compels us to not just tolerate our differences, but to celebrate them. We do this when we go to Fiesta in April and attend the Texas Folklife Festival in June. Every January, we do this by leaving our warm, comfortable houses and walking down the street with 100,000 other people.