A shot from a past Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. Photo via Visit Baltimore.

In place of a parade next month with dozens of bands, dancers, marchers and other fanfare celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration has planned a day of volunteering officially titled the “Day of Service.”

A description for the holiday event on Mayor Catherine Pugh’s website bills Monday, Jan. 15, 2018, as an occasion for “residents to emulate Dr. King’s leadership and compassion for others by volunteering in their communities.” The occasion is being planned in partnership with the United Way of Central Maryland.

“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a public servant who devoted his life to the advancement of civil rights and equality,” the page says. “Building on this momentum, Baltimore begins a new tradition to honor this commitment and to encourage community-based organizations to organize and submit service projects that welcome volunteers of all-ages. Our communities grow stronger when we all choose to serve.”

The site offers resources for local organizations and would-be volunteers to register. So far, community-building nonprofit Civic Works is the only listed organization. Other entities, including the Friends School of Baltimore and Jewish Volunteer Connection, have separately indicated they’ll be participating.

While few would normally object to a day devoted to volunteering across the city — the parade has actually been accompanied by a day of service in the past – some in Baltimore are lamenting the absence of a cultural event that’s become a tradition for the black community. For 17 years, marching bands, dance troupes, social justice and community organizations, fraternities and others have gathered for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, starting at MLK Boulevard and Eutaw Place and heading south along his namesake road. The affair draws thousands of spectators every year.

Criminal justice advocate and former city council candidate Christopher Ervin noted this isn’t the first public event centered around African-American culture that the Pugh administration has downsized this year. This past summer, the mayor scaled down the African American Festival, relocating it from Camden Yards to Druid Hill Park and shortening it from two days to one.

“I see a trend in some of her political moves, and it’s troubling,” Ervin said in an interview. “It seems like there’s a want to ‘de-blackify’ Baltimore City.”

The city hasn’t modified other parades catering to white audiences this year, he noted, such the one for St. Patrick’s Day downtown in March or the Greek Independence Day Parade in Greektown in April.

Pugh said through a spokesperson that while a parade isn’t scheduled, her administration is “in the final stages of confirming plans for our celebration as well as our ‘Drum Major for Justice’ Marching Band Showcase.”

“Our program will provide both service organizations and community marching bands an unprecedented opportunity and platform to take their participation to a new level of influence,” she said. “We are counting on our local leaders to mobilize their neighbors and members through service.

“We are finalizing logistics, but will be sharing updates soon,” added Amanda Smith, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.

Pugh helped organize another day devoted to volunteering earlier this year during The Basketball Tournament, harnessing the branding power of ESPN and Baltimore native basketball star Carmelo Anthony as the tournament’s sponsor to get people to volunteer around West Baltimore and assorted neighborhoods across the city.

Civic Works has mobilized hundreds of locals for MLK Day for years. This year’s plans include cleaning, lot-clearing and planting greenery in East Baltimore in an area stretching from E. Oliver Street to Biddle Street.

Gwen Kokes, volunteer coordinator for Civic Works, quoted AmeriCorps’ borrowed slogan for the holiday effort each year: “Make it a day on, not a day off.”

“It reminds us of how Dr. King didn’t really have a day off himself, and how we incorporate his values into our everyday service,” she said.

Asked about the city’s decision to cut out the parade, she said Civic Works has been paying more attention to its event.

“I think people should do what makes them feel best on an important day,” she said. “If that means serving with us, we’re happy to have them.”

If you’re seeking festivities celebrating Dr. King on Jan. 15, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum will be hosting its own celebration, complete with live chamber and choral music devoted to his story, community discussions, films screenings and crafts. Click here for more info.

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...