A "Black Lives Matter" banner at the 2015 MLK March. Photo by Scott Ball.

As the crowd in front of Martin Luther King Jr. Academy thickened at the start of the MLK March this morning, it was clear that Dr. King’s dream means many different things to many people.

The crowd contained most of our elected leaders, those who would like to be, corporate groups, and those there to protest them. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Rifle Association were both carrying signs claiming to have the solution for problems faced by inner city black communities. 

The March was diverse in almost every way. One young, blonde marcher had only taken his first steps last week. Another in a stately bow tie proudly proclaimed to be 71 years old. Black, white, and Hispanic groups championed racial, sexual, and economic equality.

Visible throughout were t-shirts and signs with the slogans “black lives matter,” and “we can’t breathe.” Some were organized in groups, others were spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity with the national movement against police brutality. These were stark reminders of the broader context for any event celebrating racial harmony.

In San Antonio, this year’s MLK March was a snapshot of how far the country has come, and how far it has to go. From the landmarks and vistas along the parade route to the elected leaders marching in the vanguard, signs of change were juxtaposed with reminders of why change is so necessary.

A man walks by a mural during the 2015 MLK March.  Photo by Scott Ball.
A man walks by a mural during the 2015 MLK March. Photo by Scott Ball.

Mayor Ivy Taylor, herself the former council representative for District 2, sees the tension in two well-known facts. On one hand, San Antonio has one of, if not the, largest MLK marches in the country, in spite of a population that is only 6-7% African-American. And it’s the largest city in the country with a female African-American mayor.

“It’s reflective of the character of our city, the way we embrace the ideals Dr. King talked about,” said Taylor.

On the other hand, Taylor pointed out, our Martin Luther King Boulevard is, like most, in the heart of a neglected and stigmatized area. The march itself shows how far we’ve come, but the street beneath our feet shows how far we have to go.

However, Taylor does feel that progress is real.

“We’re in the midst of actual investment,” Taylor said.

One such investment that can be seen from the march route is St. Phillips College, now home to an early college high school as well. The SAISD in-district charter allows students to graduate from high school with an associate degree.

Mayor Ivy Taylor and her husband, Rodney, pose for a photo at the 2015 MLK March. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mayor Ivy Taylor and her husband, Rodney, pose for a photo during the 2015 MLK March. Photo by Scott Ball.

Taylor also sees the “come-so-far-yet-so-far-to-go” tension in herself. On the one hand, she is the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of a city with a population more than one million people. While she’s honored and humbled by that, she’s also a little bit bothered.

“It’s 2014! When are we going to get past the ‘first black’ whatever?” Taylor asked.

Councilman Alan Warrick II (D-2) may be one of the newest faces on City Council, but he and his family are not new to the district he represents. He sees the issues from the perspective of a native son.

“There’s definitely growth and change in the Eastside, but we’re not there yet,” said Warrick.

Warrick pointed out that Pittman-Sullivan Park in Denver Heights is barely a mile from Lavaca, where home values are two to three times higher. The railroad and Interstate 37 create physical and economic boundaries between houses of nearly identical architectural and historical quality.

District 2 Councilmember Alan Warrick II at the 2015 MLK March. Photo by Scott Ball.
District 2 Councilmember Alan Warrick II at the 2015 MLK March. Photo by Scott Ball.

“There are barriers we have to get over,” Warrick said. “There’s institutional racism.”

One such practice is the placement of Section 8 housing. A disproportionate amount of units are on the Eastside, even though most of the jobs are elsewhere. The problem then compounds as workers either give up on the high commute times, or follow the opportunity out of the neighborhood as soon as they can afford to do so. The declining percentage of African-Americans in the district where they were the majority demographic for most of the 20th century points to the lack of opportunity.

Part of opportunity growth will be removing the stigma from District 2.

“We’ve got to do a better job in the city to help people feel comfortable in District 2,” Warrick said.

Next year, Warrick would like to figure out a way to keep people around in Pittman-Sullivan Park after the march for the on-stage speakers, rather than being bussed away as quickly as they arrived. An on-stage emcee told the crowd that more than 100,00 people marched, but a final count or police estimate was not yet available. Afterwards, the park was teeming with thousands, although few of the elected leaders and other VIPS were visible. The long lines suggested people were more focused on the food booths than the comments of speakers on stage. 

It would be difficult to find anything missing from the human services fair, food booths, and huge stage featuring everything from gospel choirs to R&B artists. Like any huge gathering, the market seizes the opportunity to win some business. However, we shouldn’t overlook the monumental efforts of those who, in the spirit of Dr. King, are working tirelessly to see justice on the Eastside and across the city. They were there, too. Organizations like KIPP San Antonio, YMCA of Greater San Antonio, YWCA San Antonio, Alamo Area Resource Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas, and more offering education, services, and spiritual hope to the masses. As we seek progress, the MLK March reminds us that success will be measured not only in the ethnicity of our elected leaders, but also in the quality of life for our neighbors, and the value we place on every life.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.