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After rift, MLK parade to go on in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Despite a bitter split between Sevell Brown, longtime organizer of the city's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, and the group the public has always associated with the event, the celebration is set to go on as usual in the new year.

The City Council recently agreed to waive liability insurance and fees for city services for the Jan. 18 event. In years past, Brown typically has applied for the waiver under the banner of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

This year was different. Brown — who was the state and city leader of the civil rights group until a recent falling out — applied for the fee waiver as national director of a breakaway group, the National Christian League Council.

The city appears to be staying out of the fray. During a Dec. 3 meeting, Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis told council members that the annual parade is being run by the Martin Luther King Holiday and Legacy Association. State records indicate that the association was incorporated in 2003 and that Brown is its president. Brown's lawyer described the association as "a simple non-profit that has actually been running the parade for the last 25 years.''

Late last week, SCLC general counsel Dexter Wimbish sounded conciliatory about Brown's parade plans.

"We support any genuine efforts to honor the legacy of Dr. King, even those led by Mr. Brown, as long as the process is transparent and all members of the public are allowed to participate,'' he said.

The SCLC simply wants it clear that it is not organizing the parade, he said, should questions be raised about funding or sponsorship.

Art Rocker, who took over as state chairman, is less appeasing. City officials have yet to respond to his offers to help with the parade, he said.

"We requested that they sit down with us so that we can help plan the MLK parade and be inclusive. We don't care if Sevell Brown has something to do with the parade. That's his privilege. The key to it is where is the money going? What programs are being developed from this?''

It's unclear how much money the parade — touted as the nation's largest MLK event — generates.

Brown did not respond to interview requests, but Jonathan Alpert, interim general counsel for his new National Christian League Council, called on his behalf.

Alpert said the parade is not a moneymaking venture and that there are no fees charged to bands for being part of the parade.

"It's kind of sour grapes,'' he said of criticism about Brown's accountability and leadership.

The dispute between Brown and the SCLC — which was founded by Martin Luther King — erupted this year. Depending on who has the platform, Brown was either kicked out of the SCLC or quit in frustration.

In a statement about the breakup, Brown accused the national organization of losing its way and becoming "money changers in the temple of civil rights," saying the federal government has launched "well-founded investigations into missing funds well in excess of 1.5 million dollars."

The SCLC said it parted ways with Brown first. Wimbish, the organization's lawyer, said Brown's new group was "simply another attempt ... to move the conversation away from the fact that he was removed for ineffective leadership and failure to maintain a level of compliance that satisfies our fiduciary obligations to our membership and financial supporters."

As for Brown's accusations of financial impropriety, Wimbish said the organization has turned over nearly 10 years of financial records to the U.S. attorney general and was fully cooperating with any investigation.

Born in Jordan Park, Brown, 59, became involved in the SCLC when his brother, Darryl, filed an employment discrimination complaint. Several years ago, he told the St. Petersburg Times that the SCLC came to St. Petersburg because of his brother's case.

The parade he organizes will mark its 25th year in 2010, but once it almost didn't take place. Then police Chief Sam Lynn refused to issue a parade permit because of bills due from the 1988 parade. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on the SCLC's behalf, alleging political retaliation because of efforts to get Ninth Street renamed to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.

The resulting settlement produced two new ordinances, one of which waives a group's costs for police service and cleanup if it's a public issue speech event and the organization proves it can't pay.

On Nov. 12, Brown filed an affidavit of financial need, submitting a bank statement for his group with a balance of $24.88.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

After rift, MLK parade to go on in St. Petersburg 12/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 11, 2009 6:02pm]

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