For years, San Antonio has had the privilege of hosting what many call the largest Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in the country. This year, organizers of the event touted 175,000 participants, which famously garners as many corporate and political attendees as it does “grassroots” folks.
I attended my first MLK march in 2003, which was a couple of years before I came out as gay. At the time, I remember asking a few people their opinion as to why we have the largest march, especially when our city has—sadly—such a small and often not-very-visible African-American population. The answer I’ve received many times over the years? Basically, it’s about diversity. Not just racial or ethnic diversity, but diversity of literally all kinds of people.
I remember speaking with a friend who used to take part in MLK festivities in Atlanta, Ga., every year until she moved here. “Atlanta is wonderful,” she told me. “And it’s certainly a rich experience. But it doesn’t get nearly as many people as the MLK march does in San Antonio. Here you have everyone, no matter who, just marching together. It’s a beautiful sight.”
That was her take, anyway. But does it matter who marches? Is “too much” diversity a bad thing? Perhaps a watering down of King’s message? And does corporate involvement and thinly-veiled political jockeying turn the whole thing into a circus? Some think so.
When you attend the march, you notice that the prime positions are dedicated first to city and county leaders, including a smattering of political candidates and incumbents, and then to blocks of corporate employees. To expect electoral hopefuls not to turn out in droves for such an event would be naïve, but certainly it gets frustrating to see so many looking to gain personally from such an event. As for the corporate involvement, perhaps that’s a sign of the times, but it should also be noted that those corporate “boogeymen” help fund the expense of putting on such a large march. More importantly, the companies help their employees to literally “walk the walk” of equality—which is praiseworthy because they then bring back into their corporate culture the inclusive message of the march itself. Where’s the harm in that?
Behind the initial fanfare and within the rank and file, you also see individuals and small groups calling for the rights of everyone from workers and women to voters and veterans. In short, the march is one giant stew of people promoting fair treatment, equality and tolerance—issues not inconsistent with King’s message.
In recent years, when I’ve attended the parade I’ve marched with the LGBT contingent, which often carries a larger-than-life rainbow flag and sizable flags representing specific organizations. Usually, the LGBT group is easily 200 strong, if not more, and no one I know has ever felt out of place. In fact, the giant rainbow flag always attracts a large number of children on the route who like to have fun and run underneath it.
But if you look at the comment boards on some local media sites, there’s no shortage of remarks by people who seem to take umbrage at gays supposedly overtaking the event, making it about themselves, or—in the words of a few vocal opponents—disrespecting the very core of King’s Christian religious beliefs. The dominant point made by these commenters is that the march isn’t the right time or place to be promoting something other than the values preached by King in general, and black civil rights in particular.
I disagree with those remarks, as I think many people do. King’s message was foremost one of racial unity, but underlying that is a tone of embracing one’s brothers and sisters unequivocally. As an interesting aside, it’s worth noting that a “traditional values” group called the San Antonio Family Association stands along the parade route every year with a large sign stating “Man + Woman = Marriage.” Ironically—and perhaps tellingly—the group doesn’t walk with the MLK march, but stays put against the flow of the passersby.
One of King’s mentors, Bayard Rustin, was a devout Christian who just happened to be gay. He is often credited with introducing MLK to Gandhi’s practice of non-violent direct action; he was active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and he was a chief organizer for the famous 1963 March on Washington. Rustin’s close working relationship with King is sometimes used as justification that the civil rights leader somehow had no problem with homosexuality. Reasonably, especially given the time in which he lived, that’s a far-fetched claim, but certainly King must have seen Rustin as a human being with certain inalienable rights—including the right to march alongside him.
So let’s get back, once more, to the reason why the San Antonio MLK march is the biggest in the nation. Is it because the march commemorates a great man? A symbol of the past? Or is it because there is a living message—a message of equality that transcends the man and that flows through the crowd in a variety of ways? Isn’t that truly honoring the dream?