Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of the Baltimore Office for Promotion & The Arts, speaks at The Walters Art Museum. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with a statement from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.

Baltimore residents are criticizing the cancellation of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade.

U. S. Congressman Kweisi Mfume, whose district includes the parade route, issued a statement Thursday night calling the decision “disgraceful.”

“I am concerned and disappointed by today’s announcement,” Mfume said on his Congressional website. “It is disrespectful to tell entire communities that there won’t be an MLK parade less than two weeks before the celebration of his birthday and equally disrespectful to suggest that he can’t be celebrated through both a day of service and a community parade. BOPA is going down the wrong path by making this decision, thereby setting the stage for there never to be an MLK celebration parade again in Baltimore. It’s disgraceful.”

Donna Drew Sawyer, who has headed Baltimore’s Office of Promotion and the Arts since 2018, received much of the blame, with many residents calling for her resignation or firing.

“She needs to go,” said Kevin Brown, a former city employee who now co-owns the popular Station North Arts Café and Gallery on North Avenue.

“She needs to be fired,” said Stuart Michael, an interior designer in Baltimore.

BOPA is the official “events producer” for the City of Baltimore, which means it receives funding from the city’s operating budget to put on festivals such as Artscape and celebrations such as the MLK parade. 

People have called for Sawyer’s resignation before, especially after she laid off many of the BOPA staffers who produce Artscape, which BOPA hasn’t held in-person for the past three years.

But this week’s reaction was different, in part because King is revered in Baltimore and in part because BOPA’s decision to cancel the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade wasn’t tied to the COVID-19 pandemic or any other public health issue, the way other BOPA event cancellations during Sawyer’s tenure have been.

In a media advisory issued on Thursday, BOPA said the decision to cancel the parade was not made in reaction to a health crisis. In lieu of a parade, BOPA suggested that Baltimoreans take part in a “day of service” to the community, in whatever way they choose.

The parade “has not been held since January 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions in 2021 and 2022,” the advisory said. “Now, in 2023, it is a conscious decision to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy through a day of service rather than a parade.”

On Friday afternoon, BOPA issued a “clarifying statement” to its Thursday media advisory, stating that the ultimate decision to hold or cancel the MLK parade comes from the mayor’s office, not BOPA. In its Thursday statement, BOPA had said it was the agency that produced the parade.

Here is the statement issued on Friday:

“The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade is a mayoral event,” it said. “At the request of the Mayor, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA) produces civic events like fireworks and the MLK Day Parade for the City of Baltimore because of our experience with large public events.

“During the COVID health crisis in 2021 and 2022,” it continued, “the MLK parade was canceled due to mandated health restrictions imposed by the mayor’s office and the health department. This year, the decision was made to honor Dr. King with a day of service, in keeping with the spirit of his life and legacy.

“BOPA does not have the authority to, nor would we ever assume to, make unilateral decisions on mayoral events,” the agency said. “BOPA will continue to provide enthusiastic support of the mayor’s civic events whenever we are called upon to do so.”

Monica Lewis, the Senior Director of Communications for Mayor Brandon Scott, did not respond to a request for comment on the parade cancellation. Scott said in October that he supports Sawyer and has complete confidence in her ability to run her agency.

Many city residents recall that parts of Baltimore were heavily damaged by rioters after King was slain on April 4, 1968 including sections of West Baltimore along the parade route. The annual parade is part of the city’s tradition of honoring the civil rights leader.

“No MLK parade. That’s so unlike Baltimore,” said Adrienne Haynie on Facebook.

“Hard to believe,” said Alfredo Santiago about the cancellation.

“So disappointing,” said LeVesta Peggy Jackson-Crute.

Others questioned BOPA’s ability to raise sufficient funds to honor King.

“What is happening?” asked Julie Kichline. “Do they not have staff? Lack of funding? I mean I know they had to rebuild after the pandemic and there would be challenges, but I’d love to know what is going on over there.”

“They get a small $2.6 million from the city to do events, festival and parades,” Brown said of BOPA. “They have to raise money to add to that amount to make the wheels roll. They are failing at that.”

Brown said in a separate email message that he would be willing to replace Sawyer temporarily, if Mayor Scott asked him to. He said he would work with the mayor “to bring in someone genuinely qualified, interested, innovative, inclusive and forward thinking.”

Cheryl Goodman, a local events planner, was one of several commenters who said they thought local businesses and churches would support the parade if lack of funds is the reason it was cancelled. 

“I’m sure a modified parade could have been coordinated with community assistance,” she said.

The key to success is advance preparation, said former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

“You work on raising money and partnering with other groups and businesses a year before the parade,” Dixon wrote on Facebook. “A day of service on Martin Luther King Day has been going on for years. You can do both.”

Several City Council members have also expressed frustration with Sawyer’s leadership of the agency and cancellation of the parade. Council member Eric Costello, whose district includes the parade route along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, said he believes BOPA will be in breach of its contract with the city if it doesn’t put on the MLK parade.

Although Sawyer didn’t comment about the parade cancellation and calls for her resignation, she told her board last month that she is enormously proud of the work she has done over the last year.

During an hour-long board meeting, Sawyer talked about new graphics and new “branding” the agency has gained to help get its message across. She said she was especially pleased that the National Endowment of the Arts gave BOPA a $30,000 grant, saying it was the first time in BOPA’s history that it received a grant from that agency. 

“That’s national recognition of the programs that we’re doing, so I’m immensely proud of that team and immensely proud of our BOPA development team for writing that grant and getting this grant for the first time in BOPA’s history,” she said. “That was a day of joyous rejoicing when we got the news on that.”

Former BOPA and NEA officials say the agency received funding support from the National Endowment for the Arts in nine of the past 15 years. Besides the 2022 award, records show, the grants include: $20,000 in 2019; $20,000 in 2016; $30,000 in 2015; $30,000 in 2014; $25,000 in 2013; $25,000 in 2012, and $250,000 in 2009, and $20,000 in 2008.

Sawyer said she was also pleased that a photo of activity at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market ran “above the fold” on the front page of The Baltimore Sun in 2022. “If you know anything about media, that is the best placement ever,” she said.

In terms of news coverage that BOPA received in 2022, “we had some good press and some bad press this year,” Sawyer said, “but I think we’ve done it all with grace and with intent, and I’m very proud of the work that the team has done in 2022.” 

“We’re all proud, too,” said BOPA president Brian Lyles.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

2 replies on “Baltimoreans criticize cancellation of MLK parade; BOPA blames mayor’s office”

  1. Shame on you Mayor Scott, if they wanted to have the Martin Luther King celebration in West Baltimore you would have it, if you wanted to have pigs running through the street you’d have it up there too anything and everything has been focused on West Baltimore lately. Keep up this foolishness and they’re going to be parading you right out of city government return the Martin Luther King Day parade it’s part of all of our heritage and freedom I’m sure you may have heard about him before? Get yourself together with that foolishness!

  2. The biggest achievement of the year was a photo? In a local newspaper? Yikes. With all of these cancellations, maybe BOPA as an organization needs to be rethought, or in BOPA-speak…cancelled. Maybe, like the book festival, someone else needs to take on these events that the city needs and loves and desperately wants the return of.

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