In St. Petersburg, celebration and concern march together at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade

Published January 16 2017
Updated January 16 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The distant swell of music echoed down Central Avenue on Monday morning, a sign of the fanfare to come. Kids hung from barricades, calling to grinning St. Petersburg police officers: "We want beads!"

Katherine Jones sat in a folding chair with her hands on her lap, waiting for the marching bands. The lifelong St. Petersburg resident, now 90, remembers all of the places she once couldn't go. When she went to work with her mother, they had to walk in the back door to go sweep the front porch. They ate lunch in a closet.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for change.

"He tried to give an example of how we should treat each other," Jones said. "Of course he took a whole lot of abuse doing it. I just wish we had him here today."

The music surged as the 32nd annual MLK Dream Big parade passed by, baton-twirlers and drummers marching past 40,000 revelers in downtown St. Petersburg who spent Monday afternoon celebrating the Civil Rights icon's legacy on the day after his birth.

Sequined dancers in white boots twirled under a bright, overcast sky, while kids on the sidewalk matched their rhythm. In between bands, politicians, businesses and activists threw candy and waved like pageant queens.

One sign saying "Thank you Barack and Michelle" drew sustained applause, representing a bittersweet moment as the nation's first black president prepares to step down after eight years in office. "Thanks, Obama!" people shouted, while a woman chimed in, "That's my president."

"What worries me is how angry our President-elect seems to be, and how he seems to be promoting violence," said Valerie Haynes, 63, of St. Petersburg. "He has to find a way to pull the people of this country together. We're a diverse country, there's no getting around that, and a house divided will not stand."

Later, signs saying "Black Lives Matter" and "Stop the Violence" also got cheers.

Lindy Harmon-Sherman, 57, stressed King's message of unity in a time when unity is definitely lacking.

"We can learn from each other," she said. "That's what makes us strong. That's what makes us great in the first place."

Bouncing her grandson as firetrucks roared by, Rebecca Russell-Gootee said she hopes 7-month-old Amiel and others come to understand how much work is left to do.

Life wasn't easy as a multiracial family over the decades, she said. She felt judgment from her black and white neighbors alike.

"We didn't always know which side of the street to stand on," she said. She taught her children to see the world through rainbow-colored glasses, so that they don't become blind to color, but instead understand and celebrate difference.

"It's up to us to take that time to learn," she said. "And we might find that our viewpoints have changed."

Jessica Hooper brought her 3-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son to honor King.

"It's important to celebrate the hard work of one of the greatest leaders of our time," she said. "When they're older I'll explain that, but right now we're still working on first words."

Dawn Wilder, 45, read King's powerful Letter from the Birmingham Jail in a St. Petersburg College class and was compelled to bring her kids to the parade. They attend Canterbury School, she said, and knew few others attending.

"It's good for them to come honor what Martin Luther King, Jr. did," she said. "I know we still have a long way to go."

St. Petersburg police said the parade went smoothly, with no incidents of note beyond a food truck fire and some kids separated from their families.

"I think it was smoother than last year," said Officer Mike Hughbanks, who followed the route on bicycle. The parade had new organizers and a new route this year after its founder and longtime leader became embroiled in questions of mishandled finances.

After the parade, families flocked to a festival in the Tropicana Field parking lot, where the scents of garlicky crab legs and barbecue wafted through the air. Kids piled into inflatable fun houses, while bass-heavy music thumped throughout the lot.

"It's a great celebration for such a great man," said Stefan Smith, 43, from Tuskegee, Al., snapping photos of the fanfare. "He was a man about peace, and we need to build peace going forward from here on out."

Keeping King's dream alive is up to the nation's leaders, he said. So he wasn't happy to see President-elect Donald Trump dismiss the legacy of Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a Civil Rights icon himself who suffered a fractured skull when he and other marchers were beaten by Alabama state troopers while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.

Jae Phillips agreed. The 35-year-old St. Louis native said incoming president hasn't eased the racial divide in the U.S. As Phillips pushed his child in a stroller, he worried that the divide may deepen.

"It's still a long way to go," he said. "But we've come a long way as well."