It's not widely known, but the city was the first in the South implementing integration—a source of local pride to this day.
SAN ANTONIO, TX — People often marvel, and wonder, as to why San Antonio invariably stages the nation'a largest march to honor the late civil rights worker Martin Luther King, Jr. on the holiday honoring his legacy. One would think a city in the Deep South—where the corrosive effects of Jim Crow were the most grinding given its strict adherence—rather in a city best known as the home of the Alamo would hold the distinction.
One would also think the nation's biggest MLK Day march also would be staged at a predominantly black city, not San Antonio where the African American population barely registers at 8 percent. And yet, the throngs grow for the march on this day honoring the late civil rights worker, with a crowd of nearly 300,000 marchers at this year's event.
And yet, San Antonians get up early each morning in full force on this day to participate in the nearly 3-mile march honoring Dr. King. And each year, it's reported theirs was the biggest such march in the entire country. But why San Antonio? Why is the nation's largest MLK Day march staged here?
To achieve an answer, one first needs to grasp local history. By several documented accounts, San Antonio was the first southern city to begin integration at its restaurants. It's hard to fathom today, but there was a time when black people weren't allowed to eat alongside white people at lunch counters, the policy an ugly remnant of the post-slavery, post-Reconstruction era—vestiges of which are now, thankfully, in the dustbin of history.
According to African Americans in South Texas History edited by Bruce L. Gasrud, on March 16, 1960, San Antonio became the first southern city to begin integration of its small restaurants, as the San Antonio Express-News notes. The book chronicles the series of events leading up to integration and its aftermath. What's more, the book adds credence to a long-known bit of local history: San Antonio never actually had segregation laws in place, although police still enforced the law in de facto fashion.
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In an essay contained in the aforementioned book, Robert A. Goldberg describes the racial climate in San Antonio during that time in a treatise titled Racial Change on the Southern Periphery: The Case of San Antonio, Texas 1960-1965. So-called " 'voluntary desegregation, the Texas way' " was the preferred mode of compliance in seguing from the shameful chapter of our collective history where black people weren't allowed at certain establishments. In this way, San Antonio set an example for other cities, Goldberg wrote.
“San Antonio showed the way and the rest of the region, rejecting the example of the deep South followed,” Goldberg wrote.
It could have turned out very differently. When four African American college students in Greensboro, N.C. demonstrated at a lunch counter sit-in after being denied service, city officials elsewhere began to formulate their own plans of action should such demonstrations reach them. According to the Goldberg's essay, San Antonio downtown business owners were poised to refuse service to African Americans should they attempt such a disruptive protest within their city confines.
But then, something remarkable occurred. A college freshman, Our Lady of the Lake College student Mary Andrews, sent letters to a half-dozen city stores, asking for them to desegregate their lunch counters. She had the backing of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Business owners reacted somewhat positively to the idea of integration, if only as a way to avoid tense situations seen at other cities where brave protesters staged sit-ins when refused service. But they worried about backlash from their white customers. That's when the chief of police and city attorney, George Bichsell and Carlos C. Cadena, respectively, stepped in. The former alerted media outlets that police wouldn't step in to bust up a sit-in, unless their services were needed to quell a disturbance, while the latter asserted a sit-in "...would not be considered a breach of peace."
That opened the floodgates to integration. San Antonio clergymen were asked to participate in the movement from their pulpits in engendering a dialogue, not only to help usher in an integrated era but to gauge the community's pulse on the issue. Parishioners were asked to urge business owners to “cooperate by commending the businessmen for their vision and action” while asking them to show “appreciation by continued patronage and in every other means of assurance.”
By March 16, 1960, the once-dreaded sit-in demonstrators came to town as a test of the city's resolve. But by that time, everyone was on board for integration and the four young black people were served without incident at a lunch counter that, up to then, was segregated. While the incident went largely unnoticed, the city nonetheless "...basked in the spotlight as the first major southern city to integrate its lunch counters," according to the essay.
Given that municipal DNA, one starts to understand why the nation's largest gathering to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. takes place here. This year is no different, with estimates pouring in that close to 300,000 people marched the preplanned route, starting at a bridge on a street both named after the civil rights martyr—the MLK Freedom Bridge at 3500 MLK Drive. From there, the procession ends at Pittman Sullivan Park, 1101 Iowa St., where a program was scheduled at noon.
At the 29th annual version of the march this year, actor and author Hill Harper served as keynote speaker, with feature performances by gospel singer Isaac Carree and classically trained violinist (and San Antonio native) Jeremy Green.
San Antonio is a city perhaps best known for being home to the Alamo, where a rag-tag army of men fought to their deaths in defending what is now known as the shrine of Texas liberty. "Remember the Alamo!" continues to be a rallying cry to remind others of past sacrifice performed to ensure freedom. But in many ways, a last stand against institutionalized racism was also staged in San Antonio—a less-remembered, lightly chronicled bit of local lore without rallying and nothing more than a footnote of American history.
But San Antonians know their history, and they march. Silently and with solemnity, and by the tens of thousands, they march.