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Editorial

Cancellation of Baltimore’s MLK parade was a mistake | COMMENTARY

Members of the City-Wide Marching Band perform in a Baltimore's Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade held years ago.  The parade has been cancelled for 2023 for the third year in a row. File. (Glenn Fawcett/Baltimore Sun)

It’s not every day that U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume offers blistering comment regarding Baltimore’s social calendar, but his recent criticism of this week’s decision to cancel Baltimore’s parade honoring Martin Luther King Jr. was right on the mark. Mfume, a civil rights leader in his own right and past president of the NAACP, called it disrespectful and disappointing. The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, the nonprofit organization that organizes the parade, “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,” he said in a statement issued within hours of BOPA’s announcement.

What’s especially infuriating about the announcement — beyond the fact it was made on Thursday, Jan. 5, just 11 days before the King national holiday — is that no clear reasoning was offered. While acknowledging that Baltimore’s MLK Day parades in 2021 and 2022 were canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak, organizers make no such claim this year. Instead, the three-paragraph announcement simply states that it has made a “conscious decision to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy through a day of service rather than a parade.” The statement goes on to explain that the Jan. 16 holiday is a “National Day of Service” and recommends Baltimoreans sign up to assist their communities, even suggesting people follow Mayor Brandon Scott on Twitter for some helpful suggestions.

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In other words, here’s a bit of lecturing to go with your disappointment. Enjoy.

Now, we are not against community service. Indeed, we’re very much in favor it. We suspect the congressman feels exactly the same way. But if King is remembered only as an obligation — his birthday a time of sacrifice and not of celebration — we’re going to guess that public enthusiasm for the holiday, and for his legacy, is going to be diminished. A child who is thrilled to watch and hear the Magnificent Marching Machine, Morgan State University’s marching band, strut down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, may find two-hours of litter cleanup or a canned food drive a less gratifying moment. Again, that’s not to knock volunteer service (and especially trash removal), but why take every ounce of fun from a youngster’s understanding of an important historical figure?

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Might there still be some public health concern here? It’s possible. There is ongoing concern regarding this winter’s “tridemic” of COVID, the respiratory syncytial virus or RSV and seasonal flu. But given how the event is entirely outdoors, that alone seems unlikely. We can certainly speculate that BOPA may well be unprepared for the event and this last-minute cancellation reflects a level of disorganization and lack of workers that is also not uncommon in the pandemic era in both the public and private sectors. The lecture about public service might even have been mostly an opportunity to give it all a positive spin. But that’s only a possibility. A spokeswoman for the 501(c)(3) declined to provide any further explanation.

So while it’s obviously too late to revive the parade for 2023, it’s not too early for organizers, perhaps with Mayor Scott and members of the Baltimore City Council in lockstep, to announce their intent to bring the MLK parade back in 2024. At least that would demonstrate that Baltimore cares as passionately about celebrating King and all that he stood for as it does about having fun on St. Patrick’s Day — a parade still planned in downtown Baltimore for Sunday, March 12, by the way. No offense to our Irish friends, but the greatest sacrifice expected of participants in that annual event is usually to dine on corned beef and cabbage at some point.

Baltimore hasn’t had an MLK parade since 2020. It can wait one more year bring back a tradition that started in 2000. But our last piece of advice to BOPA, which organizes many large-scale events — from fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July to Artscape and Light City Baltimore — that have proven essential for city living, is to be more transparent about what’s happening behind the scenes, the good and the bad. As King once observed, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” Promoting a day of service is great, promoting service while also holding a parade is simply much better.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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