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San Antonio MLK March 2021 to showcase momentous route when it goes virtual for first time

A history-making film documents the path thousands of marchers usually take on San Antonio's east side for the recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's birthday.

SAN ANTONIO — San Antonio's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. March stood up to years of inclement weather. But even the might of citizens determined to pay homage to the civil rights icon on his birthday couldn't withstand the ongoing impact of the coronavirus

"I've been a part of that march more than 50 years," Renee Watson said. "So, for me to say we're not going to get out and walk—I had a real heartburn with that, just like many other residents."

Watson, the current chair of the MLK Commission, said they decided to use technology to their advantage to make the march a reality this year—in virtual reality. 

"We wanted to recreate something that you still feel like you're out there," she said. "And if you've never been there, then you get to see what it's all about."

Watson and the commission tapped San Antonio native Ya'ke Smith to capture the march in a creative production, recreating the experiences that happen along the route.

"The march has played an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember," Smith said.

The 40-year-old graduated from Sam Houston High School and the University of the Incarnate Word before going on to become associate dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Texas in Austin. The George Christian Centennial Professorship fellow is also an associate professor in the Moody College of Communication.

"This celebration is so huge," she said. 

Smith took on the challenge of capturing a six-hour march in 92 minutes. Six days of production gave him access to the San Antonio chief of police, the Bexar County sheriff, the San Antonio Fire Department chief, members of the original Black Nurses Association, members of the LGBTQ and representatives of faith-based communities.

Their accounts will chart the march's famous route to Pittman-Sullivan Park, where vendors merge with marchers' legion. It's also where the main stage typically sits.

"Have you ever really looked around and seen what's on the boulevard?" Watson asked.

She said the film, which they hope to eventually hand over to tourism officials, starts at the Freedom Bridge, passes "Church Row," and advances to the hill where thousands descend for a program beginning at noon with a notable speaker.

Watson said the march would not feature a keynote speaker. The commission opted to give quotes from Dr. King to people in our community who will bring those thoughts to life.

"I am a social justice filmmaker. First, I'm an activist," he said. "So, in everything that I do, I want to make sure that I am making those that have been deemed invisible, visible and giving voice back to those whose voices have been silenced."

After a year in which cries for social justice raged across the globe, Black Lives Matter is a thread in Smith's storytelling quilt.

The filmmaker said he still gets chills from a scene in which family members who had loved ones killed in police incidents are on the VIA's Rosa Parks bus.

"The bus is surrounded by activists who are charging, you know, the city, the community, the people with really coming out, and making sure that we create a much more inclusive and equitable landscape for everyone."

Smith said he's excited the film is a part of his brand and work.

The 2021 MLK virtual march and celebration starts at 10 a.m. on Monday. It's available on San Antonio's governmental access channel.

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