With passion, commitment and hope, 300,000 people joined together in peace to walk the 2.75-mile route of the 29th annual Martin Luther King Day March on San Antonio’s Eastside Monday. The early morning chill and heavy cloud cover gave way to a cloudless blue sky as marchers slowly made their way north along the route, urged on by neighbors waving hand-written signs offering words of inspiration, chanting civil rights groups, and here and there, neighbors playing recording of Dr. King’s’ most memorable speeches.
Patrons of all ages, races, and faith backgrounds gathered at the march starting point, Martin Luther King Academy, before 10 a.m. while marchers enjoyed live music and dancers on stage. A mural across the way depicted King addressing a large crowd, his own words on the wall exclaiming,”The most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
A who’s who of civic and elected officials formed the vanguard behind the official Color Guard, and a small contingent of “Black Lives Matter” activists took their place ahead of the Color Guard. Dr. King surely would not have objected, and on this Monday, the group was allowed to walk in front.
And then the mass of people began to move north on MLK Drive toward Pittman-Sullivan Park, where thousands would gather for the commemorative program.
One marcher, San Antonio resident Peggy Patton, said the size and diversity of the marching column was inspirational.
“I wish that the rest of the world could do something like this as far as religion and culture,” she said, “to just come together and realize that we’re all people who share similar emotions and thoughts.”
San Antonio continues to host one of the nation’s largest MLK Marches every year. With an African-American population of about 7%, some wonder how the predominantly Hispanic city amasses such a large and energized population of people continues to amaze first time marchers.
Former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte paused at the start to say that King’s nonviolent campaign for civil rights in America was a struggle waged on behalf of all oppressed people, not only African-Americans. The Mexican-American civil rights movement drew far less media attention in the 1960s, but it was historic in its own right and is at the foundation of San Antonio’s multiracial and ethnic march each year.
“Many think of MLK as an African-American civil rights activist, but we were here as well,” Van de Putte said. “This march is important for all those who are disenfranchised.”
San Antonio resident Etta Cobb echoed Van de Putte’s sentiments.
“(The march) isn’t just for us African-Americans,” she said. “It’s a dream for all people to come together and that makes my heart happy.”
This year was the largest MLK March the city has ever hosted, with a crowd estimated at 300,000 people, according to the San Antonio MLK, Jr. Commission.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley, accompanied by her her adult daughter, Courtney Sculley, who lives in Austin, said the large turnout speaks to the good-willed nature of the city.
“We are a very international, tolerant and inclusive community,” she said.
Everywhere along the route, families filled front yards and porches and stood on sidewalks, many holding signs that echoed that theme of inclusion. “Unity must reign,” one read. “We’ve come this far by faith,” said another.
Just beneath the surface of that unity was a sense of frustration and anger over the number of blacks who have died in fatal encounters with police officers, with very few of those shootings leading to criminal charges.
“The cops are violent and we will not be silent!” chanted one group of marchers.
“Hands are up! Don’t shoot!” headlined one sign that included the names of many of those gunned down in such police encounters.
U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) was among the elected officials who marched.
“At a time when our politics are very polarized, it’s nice to have a day that we all honor the memory of Martin Luther King who appealed to the better angels of our nature,” Cornyn said at the ned of the march.
As marchers filled the park in the early afternoon, others already there listened to community leaders, gospel singers, ministers and others proclaim the day in words and musics. Once again, the message was one of hope and peace, but delivered with stronger words about the continuing fight for justice and equality.
Brandon Logan, the MLK Commission chairman and the grandson of a former civil rights leader, said his priority is to carry Dr. King’s spirit beyond MLK Day.
“It’s an honor to see Dr. King’s dream here with all ethnic and faith groups represented,” he said. “We need to keep that spirit the other 364 days of the year.”
Logan also stressed the importance of continuously working to incorporate more diverse groups into the march in order to spread King’s vision to everyone, just as he had once dreamed.
“If we have the same march every year then we’re not accomplishing anything. We need to be intentional about reaching out to different groups to join in and continue Dr. King’s legacy.”
Mayor Ivy Taylor, almost unnoticed in a red ball cap, receiving the loudest cheers and applause from the crowd gathered outdoors. She spoke of her gratitude for Dr. King and others who had come before her, the first African-American mayor and only the second woman to hold the office in San Antonio.
“I certainly recognize that without the work of Dr. King and other civil rights soldiers that I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Mayor Taylor said. “While it’s wonderful, we know there is still much work to be done to achieve the dream Dr. King had.”
The presence of families and friends who have lost black loved ones to police shootings reminded all in attendance that the dream of Dr. King has yet to be realized.
Family of local slain black youth Marquise Jones joined keynote speaker Hill Harper on stage for a passage of his speech.
“San Antonio, we are at a time of challenge and controversy right now in this country,” Harper said. “Please bring your heart to the forefront of 2016.”
It was a message many others echoed, along the march, from the stage, and in the crowd as shouts of affirmation carried in the air.