By Abe Levy and Vincent T. Davis, EXPRESS-NEWS STAFF
Walking under banners declaring “Love is the final word” and “Dream today” on East Side streets, more than 100,000 people paid tribute Monday to Martin Luther King Jr. in one of the country's largest MLK Day marches.
Hundreds of signs reproduced King's quotes and his iconic portrait. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech echoed from homes and businesses along the nearly three-mile route, mostly on Martin Luther King Drive.
Corporate executives and their employees donned uniform T-shirts and wielded themed banners, including H-E-B workers who hoisted up cut-out black letters to spell “We Believe.”
The march, celebrating its 25th anniversary, focused on continuing King's legacy but at times reflected the current political season, with signs calling for Wall Street reform and for a second term for the nation's first black president.
“I think it speaks profoundly for citizens of San Antonio to be able to sustain the march with participants from all across the city,” said Aaronetta Pierce, who was the first chairwoman of the city MLK Commission.
Pierce said about 25,000 took part in the first city-sponsored march, in 1987. “It's fulfilling to see it begin and see it rise to go beyond its beginning.”
Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the slain civil rights leader, praised San Antonio for its eye-raising turnout. He said it would have impressed his father.
“He said the highest love is defined by the word ‘agape.' It is the love that is totally unselfish because it seeks nothing in return,” King, Monday's keynote speaker, said of his father. “You love because you know God calls you to do that. And when we embrace that kind of love, we will move America and the entire world forward. We've got to have that kind of love for humankind.”
At the front of the march — in keeping with tradition — was a city garbage truck, symbolic of King's support for a sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tenn., a week before his assassination April 4, 1968.
A vintage 1966 city bus was next in line, paying homage to Rosa Parks, who famously refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Parks, who died in 2005, spoke at the first march here.
A group of local VIPs led the procession, including San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, who credited King's faith for fueling social change “in a way that brought all kinds of groups together.”
“It was a message that every person is important,” he said. “What's remarkable is his faith in Jesus Christ that led him to be willing to give his own life for the cause of peace and justice.”
Rozella Callies Miex, sister of the late Rev. R.A. Callies, who is credited with starting the march in 1972, before it became a city event, said she was thrilled to see the event flourish.
“It's like a new plant when it's growing and finally develops, and you see the fruit of your work,” said Miex, 84, who lives near the route. The commission created an award in Callies' name this year and gave it to the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
A crisp American flag fluttered in the wind in George Bernal's front yard as the crowd streamed toward the route's end. “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” blared from a boombox near framed posters of King and Pope John Paul II propped in chairs on his front porch.
For several years, Bernal has spruced up his home to show his pride in living on MLK Drive. Minutes before the crowd arrived, he wired a garden hose to his fence to provide sips of water to marchers.
“Sometimes people get thirsty. It's a long march,” Bernal said. “It's been mentioned I need to commercialize it. That's not what it's about. It's about his heritage, and a life well lived and cut too short.”
At times, marchers connected King's history to politics.
About two dozen chanted, “We got sold out. Banks got bailed out” as they demonstrated for Occupy San Antonio. A man wielded a sign reading, “No war with Iran.” And one cluster chanted “Sí se puede” — “Yes we can” and raised a sign with the name of late labor rights activist César Chávez.
Pro-Obama signs dotted the procession, linking President Barack Obama to King's vision for equality. A table was set up along a portion of the route to register new voters.
Martin Luther King III veered into politics during his speech, urging more focus on reducing poverty, access to health care and education, affordable housing and criminal justice reform. He also chided politicians for removing the voting rights of felons after serving their prison sentences.
“Our jails are full of blacks and browns and poor whites. We have to find a way to have what I call an equitable system of justice,” he said. “And if someone is convicted of a crime and particularly a felony, if they have done their time in society, they should have their right of voting reinstated.”
On a sidewalk, midway through the route sat Daisy Kuykendal in a wheelchair. She turned 100 on Nov. 6, half her life spent before King's death. She was a housekeeper for three decades.
With a warm smile, she greeted marchers who deviated from the route for a kiss, picture and “God bless you.” They were young and old, black, white and Hispanic, all inspired by her sign.
“I'm 100 years old, and I'm still marching on.”