PLANT CITY — Carl and Beatrice "Bea" Crowell were newlyweds and recent graduates of Florida A&M University when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963.
They were teachers — Bea at the Glover School and Carl at Marshall High School (now Marshall Middle School) — when King received the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.
And on April 4, 1968, when the civil rights leader was slain at a motel in Memphis, Tenn., the couple had just come home from classes to have dinner with their children, Kerri and Carl Jr.
In the days that followed, Carl remembers the shock, sadness and anger that welled up in the city's black community. He and other teachers felt compelled to remind students that King stood for nonviolence as well as civil rights.
"It was hard to believe at first, that that could happen, that anybody would do something like that," Carl Crowell, 81, said. "You had to just get your mind together if it was true what had happened."
Now, more than 40 years later, after having lived through that turbulent era and educated a generation of Plant City children, the couple have been tapped to serve as grand marshals at Saturday's annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade.
The couple were at a luncheon at the recreation center in Bealsville three weeks ago when they were asked by the Improvement League of Plant City to lead the procession.
Liesta Sykes, president of the Improvement League, which is organizing the King events, said the Crowells were perfect for the job based on this year's theme: "Faith: the Foundation of the Dream."
"Because that was our theme, we were looking for individuals who would embody our theme and the Crowells are a very faith-based family," she said. "They're also both educators and positive role models for the community."
Carl retired from the Hillsborough school district in 1991 after serving as a teacher and guidance counselor, and Bea, who remained a teacher throughout her career, retired in 1993. Both are longtime parishioners at St. Mary's Missionary Baptist Church, at 1840 State Road 60, where Carl is a deacon and Bea a deaconess. Bea, 75, also serves as a hospice volunteer. The couple have been married for 52 years.
They said they had a hard time believing they had been asked to lead the parade. Sykes said they'll be seated in a convertible ahead of the floats and marching bands.
"Just the idea that someone in the community, an organization, was thinking about us and that we were worthy for what we had contributed to education and to children, it's an honor to be thought of that way," Bea said.
Both joked at how they would wave to the crowd that lines MLK Boulevard. Should their hands swivel at the elbow or move slightly from side to side? They also wondered about what to wear.
On a serious note, they said they can't help but feel honored, especially when they reflect on King's contribution to social change. His importance to the black community and the rest of the country can't be underestimated. In the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s, the Crowells looked at King as a hero.
"He was just a part of our being," Bea Crowell said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 10 in importance for what he has done.
"So much has been done not only in the United States, but in the world," she continued. "So much had been done in that era. As for me, he was a hero."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.