ST. PETERSBURG — By the hundreds they came, diverse in ethnicity, faith, political allegiance and socio-economic status. They prayed and ate, held hands, sang together and honored a man's dream.
The occasion was the 27th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership and Awards Breakfast at the Coliseum.
At the early Monday morning gathering, guest speaker Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, a veteran of the civil rights struggle, spoke of a Martin Luther King that she said some might not have heard of, a man concerned not only about racism, but also about America's militarism and its detrimental effect on the nation's poor.
It was a growing focus of his movement at the time of his assassination, she said.
Simmons, a senior lecturer of African-American studies and religion at the University of Florida, quoted some of his less-known speeches and sermons about his concerns.
"We can't have a system where some of the people live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty," she quoted the civil rights leader, whom she had heard talk at his Ebenezer Baptist Church and her own church, West Hunter Street Baptist Church, where King's close friend, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy preached.
"I think I understand his unrelenting efforts to bring about a change that we now enjoy today," she said, adding that she was grateful that God has let her live to see this day.
"I never would have imagined I would live to see a black man honored with a national holiday," she told the crowd.
Or, she added to cheers, a black man as president.
Mayor Bill Foster, who presented Simmons with the key to the city, greeted the crowd in true Baptist fashion.
"To God be the glory," he said.
"We are beginning with a prayer, we have a parade and then we act," he said, referring to the city's first day of service in honor of King's memory.
Other politicians attending the breakfast included state Rep. Darryl Rouson, members of the St. Petersburg City Council and other local politicians. Former City Council Member Kathleen Ford was also present, but only smiled when asked whether she was running for mayor.
The event was organized by the St. Petersburg Metropolitan Section of the National Council of Negro Women. The national organization was founded by Mary McCleod Bethune. The local council was started by Fannye A. Ponder in 1942. Angela Rouson is president of the St. Petersburg group.
WTVT-Ch. 13 news anchor John Wilson was master of ceremonies. He was honored for the role he has played for 19 years.
The most moving moment of the morning came when the crowd clasped hands around and across tables and lifted their voices to sing James Weldon Johnson's Lift Every Voice.
As they stood, a video showed faces and events of the civil rights movement. As images of President Barack Obama and his family appeared on the screen, hands were raised in thanksgiving and voices rose in a roaring cheer.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.