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Celebrations, public service combine on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

ST. PETERSBURG — In downtown, an animated crowd of thousands greeted marching bands and food vendors Monday as one of the nation's largest parades unfurled as it has for more than 25 years.

Throughout the community, thousands of others planted shrubs or cleaned up trash as part of a day of service.

However they spent the day, people meant to trumpet the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At intervals in between, many celebrants cheered the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

The day started at 7:30 a.m. with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership and Awards Breakfast, which drew 900 people to the Coliseum. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, a senior lecturer in African-American studies at the University of Florida, quoted a line from one of King's sermons: "We can't have a system where some of the people live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty."

Mayor Bill Foster presented Simmons with a key to the city.

After attending the breakfast, state Rep. Darryl Rouson moved from one site to the next in a day of service he spearheaded to coincide with the holiday. Some 2,000 volunteers in 56 groups fed the homeless, pounded nails for Habitat for Humanity or delivered care packages to veterans.

Rouson spoke for three hours to two groups of men in recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction at WestCare Gulf Coast Florida. It was his most personal project of the day.

"I just challenged them and told them I needed them to succeed," said Rouson, a recovering addict with more than 14 years of sobriety.

Downtown, meanwhile, the MLK Drum Major for Justice National Parade moved down Central Avenue to Bayshore Drive and turned north. Marching bands from Florida and other states strutted in front of thousands. Vendors tantalized the nostrils with smoked ribs and freshly fried catfish.

At John McKinney's barbecue stand, the parade marked the third festival of the weekend.

"These events are my main line of income," said McKinney, who runs J & J Bar B Que in Bradenton. "My goal is, I'd like to go home with a lot of empty containers."

Community activist Sevell Brown III co-founded the parade in 1985 with his brother and has coordinated it ever since. Brown and Rouson clashed last summer after Rouson announced his day of service, and also suggested the parade be moved to a weekend day. Both events went forward independently of the other.

Rouson funded his effort with $500,000 in fast-tracked state grants. He recently lamented that he was unhappy with the "bumpy start" resulting in the standoff with Brown.

Brown could not be reached for comment.

Rouson plans to repeat the day of service next year and hopes for matching corporate donations his group did not have time to secure since launching the idea several months ago.

"Folks were so happy to come out and give service," Rouson said, "to get their hands dirty planting trees, cleaning stuff out and painting houses."

The activities in St. Petersburg were among many in the Tampa Bay area.

In Tampa, Don Johnson of Seminole rode on the Buffalo Soldiers float during the parade there. The Buffalo Soldiers were a group of black soldiers who fought in several wars, including the Spanish-American War.

Because of his involvement in the parade, Johnson was missing Obama's inauguration. But he was recording it at home.

"I thank God for allowing me to live in this time," Johnson said. "To be able to be a part of the struggles, and then see those struggles come to fruition."

Staff writers Waveney Ann Moore, Meredith Rutland, Kameel Stanley and Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

Celebrations, public service combine on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 01/21/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 21, 2013 11:40pm]

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