Sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha holding their banner before the parade. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Dozens of Baltimore nonprofits, school marching bands, black Greek organizations and others paid no heed to an unforgiving chill in the air on Monday as they marched proudly down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Baltimore.

“I’m really excited,” said labor activist Melissa Wells, minutes before marching in her first MLK Jr. Day parade in Baltimore. She was there to represent local trade and construction unions with the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights’ Wage Commission.

“The parade provides a visual acknowledgement of the importance of the civil rights movement and, I think, of the importance of Dr. King’s legacy,” she said, adding, “and that we’ve still got a long way to go.”

The march began at noon. Hundreds of bundled-up spectators lined the civil rights hero’s namesake boulevard in Baltimore, cheering, live-streaming on social media and occasionally shouting out those they knew marching.

Participants included everyone from roller skaters and dance troupes to protesters, as well as, per tradition, fraternities and sororities and caravans of city employees from various agencies. Members of Baltimore Ceasefire and Mothers of Murdered Sons held signs and banners condemning unabated violence in the city. Davon Fleming, the Park Heights native who recently made a deep run on NBC’s “The Voice” (and was then hired by the city) served as the parade’s grand marshal.

The Paul Laurence Dunbar High School marching band, with their mascot owl. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Annette Anderson, who lives several blocks west of MLK Boulevard and Eutaw Street, said she’s attended annually for nearly two decades. “I see it every year, I don’t care how cold it is.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh announced the kickoff, thanking “thousands of people who have fanned out all across our city in a day of service. We’ve proven to Baltimore that we can collaborate and work together, lifting the least while we lift all. Let’s march.”

The celebration almost didn’t happen. Pugh’s administration quietly cancelled the 18-year-old city tradition in December, opting instead to host a Day of Service in place of a parade. City residents were irate, some pointing out that Pugh had also scaled back the summertime African-American Festival and relocated it from Camden Yards to Druid Hill Park, and that the MLK Jr. Day parade is usually paired with a day of service, anyway.

Within days, the mayor’s office reversed course.

“I’m about pleasing the citizens of Baltimore,” Pugh said at a Dec. 12 community forum in Coppin Heights, revealing the parade was back on. “This is not us against them, this is not one initiative against the other. If people want to march down Martin Luther King Boulevard, we’ll make sure that that happens.”

Alpha Psi Alpha brothers set off down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Standing at the corner of MLK Boulevard and McCulloh Street, West Baltimore resident Willie Brown questioned why the administration would cancel an event centered around the black community’s most famous civil rights icon. “He fought for her to be where she’s at,” he said, “so why would you want to cancel something that brought us to where we’re at?”

Ryan Penalver, a member of Alpha Psi Alpha, said he and his brothers had planned to volunteer, regardless of whether the city hosted a parade. “I mean, it was either going to be us doing this or us doing some type of service, and even after this, we plan on doing service,” he said.

Cold weather and recent history aside, he said he appreciated the chance to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy with his fraternity out in public. “It’s just great to be around the brothers, and to be out in our community for people to see us stepping and strolling.”

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...