By AFRO Staff

Members of the Baltimore community are raising their voices in protest of the decision to cancel the 2023 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade.

Produced by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), the organization said in a Jan. 5 statement that while COVID-19 precautions prevented the parade from taking place in 2021 and 2022, this year, there was “a conscious decision to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy through a day of service rather than a parade.” 

Residents say the event is “more than a parade.”

“Every year, Baltimoreans honor this monumental historical person by gathering at the boulevard that bears Dr. King’s name to march or to watch a bright parade that warms the winter streets with celebration– but it’s more than a parade,” said Michael Eugene Johnson, a local radio personality, in a letter to the AFRO editors. 

Johnson said that the parade is “also a celebration of the history of the SCLC, NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, and Juanita Jackson Mitchell. Maybe it’s a small thing to some– but to others in the city, it’s a huge reminder of Baltimore’s historic’s role in this country’s civil rights.”

“The parade is not just a parade, it’s a lesson about Baltimore moving forward after we could not shop in the stores downtown or laws that prevented us from attending Public Schools,” said Johnson. 

The suggestion that residents should choose between service and gathering to celebrate King and the organizations that keep his legacy alive did not sit well with Congressman Kweisi Mfume (D), of Maryland’s seventh congressional district.

“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,” said Mfume, in an official statement. “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.”

In response to the backlash, Barbara Hauck, BOPA’s communications manager, issued a “clarifying statement” on Jan. 6. 

“The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade is a mayoral event. At the request of the Mayor, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and 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.”

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

BOPA last held the parade in January 2020. Three years after the start of the pandemic, the Jan. 5 announcement comes as scientists warn of the rapid spread of an even more contagious variant, XBB.1.5, a subvariant of coronavirus’ Omicron strain.

As of Jan. 6, WHO officials had counted more than 650 million coronavirus cases around the world, with more than six million deaths globally since the beginning of the pandemic.

Still, residents are ready for the return of the parade– especially when the Mayor’s Christmas Parade was just seen winding through the Hampden area on Dec. 4 in celebration of Christmas and the city’s “Miracle on 34th Street” display. 

“Here we go, [they] canceled [the] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade, but had a Christmas parade?” questioned Angela Smith, on social media. “Martin was a real person, ain’t no [expletive] Santa Clause,” she said, provoking a comment from M. Ellerbe Nowlin, who also lamented the decision. 

“It took years to get [King’s] birthday recognized as a national holiday,” said Nowlin. “This cancellation will probably continue every year. It’s a slap in the face for African Americans.”

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