More than 400,000 people are expected to fill the streets of San Antonio’s East Side Monday for the in-person return of what is said to be the nation’s largest Martin Luther King Jr. March.
The march, which went virtual in 2021 and was canceled in 2022 amid COVID-19 concerns, is the first since the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that rocked the U.S. that summer.
This year’s march, the 36th, is considered an essential San Antonio experience by many residents; some people travel across the country to walk the Eastside route from MLK Jr. Academy to Pittman-Sullivan Park, where Negro League professional baseball teams once played. The march comes amid the citywide DreamWeek celebration of San Antonio’s Black communities; those events run through Jan. 29.
Marchers will step off at 10 a.m. at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, at 3501 Martin Luther King Drive and head straight down to Pittman-Sullivan Park, where the celebration will officially go until 3 p.m.
At the park, the main stage will host multicultural performances by local artists Cherray Clifton, R&B artist Big Al and The Experience and saxophonist BillyRay Sheppard. There will also be a health and wellness area, youth area with activities, food and merchandise vendor booths.
This year’s celebration is attracting more community support than previous years, said Dwayne Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr. Commission chairman.
The 8th annual Martin Luther King Jr. citywide art contest had over 200 submissions, the largest number the commission had ever had, Robinson said.
IDEA Burke College Prep student Shelby Henderson won the art contest with her digital artwork entitled “No Matter Race Everyone is Equal.” Her entry is being used to visually represent this year’s march.
In 2020, the last in-person MLK march, an estimated 300,000 people participated, according to news reports. Robinson is expecting many more this year.
“My expectations are that if the weather is going to be like this, we’re gonna have over 400,000 people marching,” he said.
This year’s theme for the march, “Together We Can Be THE Dream,” was pitched by Shaunda Hopkins Lohse, who submitted her entry into the theme contest the commission hosted in the fall. Her theme was selected from more than 220 submissions.
“The great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, and it is time we work together to be ‘The Dream,’” wrote Lohse in her application. “His dream begins with wanting the nation to hold up to its creed, injustice and oppression to be transformed into an oasis… By voting and being active in our community we can make a difference together to help make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream a reality.”
Robinson said seeing a diverse group of people of all ages and ethnicities come together for the march is “phenomenal” to see.
“I could feel [Martin Luther King Jr.], but I certainly can feel the presence of my forefathers and foremothers that participated in the sacrifice,” Robinson said.
Robinson said the murder of Floyd and other Black people, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging when he was chased down and killed by two white men while another recorded video of his slaying, had a profound effect on him and the Black community in San Antonio.
A jogger himself, Robinson said at the time he was working as then-County Judge Nelson Wolff’s constituent services director, and he would get up before the sun came up to jog around his neighborhood. His fear, he said, was that if he was stopped by law enforcement, he would be treated not as a community member but as “a Black male” at risk for mistreatment — or worse.
While he marches, Robinson said he thinks about future generations and that all human beings are created with certain unalienable rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Robinson expressed gratitude to Councilman Jaylen McKee-Rodriguez (D-2), who serves the East Side, Mayor Nirenberg and the rest of the city council for increasing funding for the event up to $300,000 to help pay event costs and cover scholarships for Bexar County students. That money, he said, “will go right back into our community.”
One of the biggest expenses for the march is the main stage, which costs about $120,000, said Robinson. This year, the contract for stage and electrical operations was granted to a local Black, female-owned company headquartered in District 2, Straight Line Management.
Robinson described that achievement as a boost to San Antonio’s Black community, who he said often feel overlooked.
The Black community in San Antonio is unique, Robinson said, because while nationally, Hispanics are considered a minority group, in San Antonio, Hispanics make up almost 66% of residents, while the Black community, at less than 7%, is roughly half of the nationwide average.
“I think African Americans, we feel like we’re a double afterthought. It’s tough,” he said, citing low numbers of Black businesses and homeownership in San Antonio as examples.
How to get there and where to park
Traffic on the East Side will be congested due to the throngs of people making their way to the march.
Marchers can access free bus service courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. from two locations, the Freeman Coliseum at 3201 E. Houston St. in Lot 1 or St. Philip’s College at 1801 Martin Luther King Dr. in Lot 22, at the intersection of Montana and Mittman streets.
The drop-off point will be on MLK Drive, just west of Upland Drive.
Return service from the march to the two pick-up locations will be from noon to 3 p.m. from Pittman-Sullivan Park.