ST. PETERSBURG — For years, the city has prided itself on being home to the largest Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in the Southeast.
But now tension is brewing among community leaders over the future of the annual celebration to honor the late civil rights leader.
State Rep. Darryl Rouson has been floating a new vision about how the city should celebrate King's birthday. He told city leaders he would like to see a communitywide day of service next year focused on giving back to the community.
For years, he said, he has heard complaints from residents about the parties that take place following Monday's parade. His solution: Move the parade to the Saturday before the holiday.
"The thing about moving the parade is about moving the debauchery off the day," he said. "The vision is for the community to do public service that day that truly honors the man."
But other community leaders, most vocally parade founder Sevell Brown, have balked at the notion of moving the parade.
The controversy seems to have boiled over in recent days after Brown sent an email to various community leaders and went on radio to criticize what he called a power play by Rouson.
"We've been doing our celebration on Monday for 27 years," said Brown, who heads the National Christian League of Councils. "That is nonnegotiable. It is off the table."
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St. Petersburg held its inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. parade in 1986, the same year it was first observed as a federal holiday.
Organizers had to fight every step of the way to get the celebration off the ground, Brown said. As years passed, it grew into what it is today: a week of events honoring King, including a battle of the bands event and a prayer breakfast.
The famous MLK Drum Major for Justice National Parade is considered the highlight, drawing thousands to downtown St. Petersburg.
Brown thinks the parade is one of the chief ways his generation has kept King relevant in young people's lives.
He and his supporters said they feel like Rouson is now trying to take over.
"If he meant right, he would have come to us first," said Thelma Davis, who is on the parade planning board with Brown. "It seems like his agenda is personal."
Rouson said he got the idea of making the holiday one of service after attending this year's parade.
He said following the parade, he and a mentor went to minister to men trying to live sober lives. But during their visit, the men kept going to the windows to look out at the partying that has historically taken place after the parade.
"You could only think that they wanted to be out there, joining in," Rouson said.
Rouson started floating his idea to city officials, including Mayor Bill Foster and several council members. Rouson already has secured a $500,000 legislative appropriation to give money to organizations who want to do service projects that day.
In the next few months, he plans to organize a community advisory committee that would, among other things, recruit young people to manage the projects and identify what projects could be done.
"I have a simple concept of trying to honor the man, honor the legacy, honor the day," Rouson said.
Rouson says he has no interest in running the parade and isn't even trying to stop the after-parties. He maintains he just wants the actual day to be about service.
He said Foster, who could not be reached for comment, implored him to try to get with Brown to work out their differences.
But Rouson said Brown has refused to meet and won't answer his calls.
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Couldn't the two events coexist? Some in the community say yes.
"It's certainly worthy of discussion," said pastor Rickey Houston of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church. "It'd have to be a concerted effort."
James Ransom, a board member of the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, said he has spoken to both men about the situation.
There should be a way, Ransom said, for Rouson's "worthwhile" ideas to be pursued without disrupting the parade, which he thinks should remain on Monday.
"In talking with both of them, I know the passion and commitment to do good in St. Petersburg is high," Ransom said. "What you don't want to do is create competition that would harm either event. … I hope they can get through this."
The Rev. Troy Adams Sr. of New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church said it would be terrible if the controversy hung over next year's festivities.
"Martin Luther King was never about division," he said. "He was always about bringing people together."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.