Every year, San Antonio’s Martin Luther King Jr. March breaks attendance records, according to its lead organizer.

Organized by the City of San Antonio’s MLK Commission and now in its 32nd year, the local march has gained the reputation of being the country’s largest. Organizers estimate that last year’s MLK march drew more than 300,000 attendees, and they expect this year’s attendance to match or surpass that number.

Nathaniel Davis, who has served as head of the MLK Commission for three years but been involved with the march for more than 25, said people frequently ask him why San Antonio’s march is so large, but he still doesn’t have a conclusive answer.

“The only answer I can give you is the uniqueness of San Antonio,” said Davis, 62. “The people of San Antonio have shown they are receptive to the teachings and legacy of Dr. King and believe in peace and justice for all. Our hope is we support [his ideas] 365 days a year instead of one — keep people aware of social issues, continue the struggle, and continue the fight.”

The march is a 2.75-mile walk through the historic East Side, starting at the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy and ending at Pittman-Sullivan Park, where many attendees gather afterwards to enjoy food and hear speakers. This year, the MLK Commission recruited Shaun King, an activist who uses his social media platform and columns with The Intercept and The Appeal to highlight social justice issues, to give the keynote speech, a move Davis said aims to draw more youth to the march.

“Most of the time we [invite] civil rights leaders, but we wanted to get a speaker that reaches a younger audience,” Davis said. “A lot of people my age don’t [know who he is]. That’s OK, they’ll find out.” 

Every year, local and state dignitaries attend, linking arms and marching together. Mike Etienne, who serves as the City’s executive liaison to the MLK Commission, said marchers can expect regulars like Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and State Sen. José Menéndez among them this year, but also should watch for U.S. Marshal Susan Pamerleau, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, U.S. Reps. Will Hurd and Joaquín Castro, and recently announced candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Julián Castro.

VIA Metropolitan Transit is offering free rides from two park-and-ride locations to the march’s beginning point. Davis said he highly encourages attendees to take advantage of VIA’s services, as thousands of people will be trying to find parking in the area.

From 8 to 10 a.m., VIA will pick up people at the Freeman Coliseum, 3201 E. Houston St., and St. Philip’s College, 1801 Martin Luther King Dr., and will shuttle them back to those two park-and-ride lots between noon and 3 p.m.

Though the route is relatively short, Davis estimates it will take marchers about an hour and a half to complete, so he recommends wearing comfortable walking shoes and a jacket. He encourages attendees to arrive by 9:30 a.m. so the march can get underway by 10 a.m. There will be water stations at the beginning, middle, and end points of the march. Davis and Etienne said while strollers and wheelchairs are allowed, marchers are asked to leave bicycles and pets at home.

It’s gotten so large that we’re always concerned about safety,” Davis said. “We want to make sure everyone is delivered from Point A to Point B.”

The MLK Commission is organizing three weekend events leading up to the march, Etienne said. The first is a youth summit, Saturday at 9 a.m. at Sam Houston High School.

“Dr. King was about empowering youth as well,” Etienne said.

On Sunday, the commission is asking local leaders and organizations to bring a wreath to lay at the feet of King’s statue at Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza. Colette Pierce Burnette, president of the Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, will deliver a keynote speech at the 2 p.m., followed by a 4 p.m. interfaith service at Second Baptist Church, 3310 E. Commerce St.

“It’s a beautiful service that includes prayers from many different faiths,” including Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, and the Baptist denomination, Etienne said.

Monday’s forecast predicts sunny weather with a 10-percent chance of rain, so the march shouldn’t be affected.

But no matter the weather, Etienne said, “The march goes on, rain or shine.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.