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‘We will do it for our hometown’: Baltimore marching bands gear up for the city’s last-minute Martin Luther King Jr. parade

Emani Karim, 9, left, and Drew Davis, 10, right, practice with other Baltimore Twilighters for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. The young girls’ section in the Baltimore Twilighters Marching Band is called the Secret Weapon. The Twilighters, based in Upton/Penn North, practice in the Parish Hall of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church.

After months of wondering whether the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade would happen this year in Baltimore, Chanell Phillips got word last weekend: the parade was a go.

The news set off a scramble for Phillips, the assistant director for the Baltimore Twilighters Marching Band. If the group decided to march, they would need to figure out routines, schedule rehearsals and pick out costumes to keep warm on a cold January afternoon, all in the span of about a week.

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The Twilighters had already entertained the idea of marching in the MLK Day parade in Washington, D.C., but decided against it so that members could take a holiday break. For the Baltimore parade, though, they ultimately decided to march on.

“We will do it for our hometown,” Phillips said.

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The last-minute decision leaves little turnaround time for the Twilighters and other Baltimore marching bands that traditionally take part in the annual MLK Day celebrations.

News that the parade would return after two years off due to the COVID-19 pandemic came amid a whirlwind few days that began with yet another cancellation of the event by its usual organizer, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, followed by sharp backlash from the community and elected officials, and the unseating of BOPA’s CEO. Now, city officials themselves are working to mount the parade with a much shorter than typical lead time: days instead of months.

The mayor’s office quickly posted a sign-up form for parade participants,and agencies including the Department of Transportation and the Baltimore Police Department said they were working on traffic plans, security and other logistics. Jack French, a spokesman for Scott, said about 50 different community groups have signed up to participate.

Baltimore marching bands, a fixture of the city’s MLK Day parade, are also gearing up.

The Twilighters assembled Wednesday night at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church to practice their moves and musical numbers for the parade. Though the marching band took a holiday-season break, the group performs year-round, keeping members on their toes, Phillips said.

“These are routines that they probably know in their sleep,” she said of the group’s approximately 50 marchers and drummers. “We always say if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”

The Baltimore Go-Getters Marching Band held two practices last week to prepare. The band is one of the longest continuously running groups in the city at 28-years-old, and has a roster of 100 members, ranging from 2 ½-year-olds to young adults.

Band director Seneca Slow said the Go-Getters were eager to sign up for this year’s parade.

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“It’s been a long time since we’ve had [an] MLK Day parade, and the kids really do miss it,” she said. “It’s something that’s been a part of Baltimore for a long time, just as our band’s been part of Baltimore for a long time.”

The notice was too short for some other groups.

George Everette, the drum line coach for the Citywide Goldstarz, said the marching band normally hears from MLK Day parade organizers in the fall. When they didn’t get an email this year, the Goldstarz decided to travel to Orlando, Florida, to march in a parade there, instead.

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“Of course, once we made the arrangements and got all the accommodations to get to Orlando, then I hear the parade is back on in Baltimore,” Everette said.

The Goldstarz, who also serve as the official tailgate band for the Ravens, often have to travel out of town to participate in parades, he said. The city’s roster of parades — which once included marches for the Preakness Stakes, AFRAM Festival and Thanksgiving — has steadily dwindled over the years.

Everette said he tries to build band trips into educational opportunities for young members. On past trips, the Goldstarz have visited historical landmarks of the Civil Rights era, like the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King Jr. birth home.

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Both Everette and Phillips worry about the future of marching bands in a city with a rich tradition of them.

“It really did hurt a little bit when they took the MLK parade, at first, because this was really one of the last parades the bands have left to march in,” Phillips said.

The Twilighters, based in the Upton/Penn North community, are more than just a band, she added — they offer a support system to members, too. That’s why it’s important to preserve the MLK Day Parade and other opportunities for them to perform.

“We do things to keep these kids safe,” Phillips said. “We want to be one of the better bands, but we want to be even better people.”


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