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Tampa civil rights leaders to see culmination of work in march, inauguration

Retired Hillsborough Deputy Clarence Fort organized people during the civil rights movement.


Retired Hillsborough Deputy Clarence Fort organized people during the civil rights movement.


He planned to order a hamburger. It was 1960, and Clarence Fort had recruited 35 students from all-black Middleton and Blake high schools to integrate Tampa lunch counters. He was 21.

"We started here (at St. Paul AME Church), and we marched downtown to the lunch counter at Woolworth's. When we sat down, they immediately put up a closed sign. White patrons left. They turned off the lights," said Fort, now 70, and a retired Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy.

The students stayed till closing time without being served.

It was the first civil rights march in Tampa, Fort says.

Decades later, he is looking forward to another historic event, the 20th anniversary of Tampa's Martin Luther King Jr. parade Monday, just one day before the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president.

Fort will march with youth from his church: New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church of Tampa.

The parade started at St. Paul AME, the same downtown church where Fort had led students to march for their rights. He would later watch Martin Luther King Jr. preach there. In 1989, African-Americans met at St. Paul again to commemorate King with a march to the courthouse.

"This was a way to dramatize what he had been doing," said Fort.

Twenty years later, that event has grown into a parade with about 100 floats, bands and church groups traversing a street named for King to celebrate what would have been his 80th birthday this year.

The occasion has special meaning for many who will also celebrate Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama.

"It's a culmination of Dr. King's dream for America," said Ann Porter, 71, who organized that first parade 20 years ago. "Equal opportunity has been a long time coming for us."

Typically the parade draws about 16,000 spectators, said Robert Scott, co-chair of the parade. "It's going to be a historic week," he said. He expects a record crowd, maybe as many as 20,000. "Everybody wants to get involved because of the inauguration."

The parade is supported through fundraisers and services from the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County.

This year's theme: "A day on, not a day off."

Porter led the first five-block march in 1989 of about 300 mostly African-American county employees, who had gotten the day off for the first time.

Others feared if employers saw them in news reports they could lose their jobs, said Fort, who took over organizing the parade from 1991 through 2006.

Organizers initially awarded three students $500 academic scholarships for college.

Since then, deserving Hillsborough seniors have earned more than $850,000 through the annual scholarships, supported by donations to the city of Tampa's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund.

Last year for the first time, the city's parade marched on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The route had been on Main Street in West Tampa for many years. Many pushed for the move to Tampa's street named for King.

Porter hopes to see the route grow and include diverse cultural neighborhoods.

"Dr. King inspired both black and white, rich and poor," she said. Porter saw King preach in Tampa and in Atlanta.

She was inspired. She was about 15 when she marched to sit-ins.

Fort, who was head of the Tampa NAACP youth council, remembers working with area businesses years ago to integrate peacefully. The plan was for two black men to meet at each Tampa restaurant at 11 a.m. where they would be served. This would set the precedent, they hoped.

On Fort's assigned day, the other man didn't show.

"You bet I was nervous," he said. "But I sat down by myself."

When the waitress brought his grits and eggs, two white men called him a racial slur and told him he would not be eating there.

A manager called police. As they took the men into custody, Fort left also, he said. As he walked out, one of the men turned and spat on his shoulder.

Porter remembers walking about 8 miles, passing at least four white-only high schools, to go to school in Ybor City.

"Things have certainly gotten better for us," she said. "The country is ripe for even more progress."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3321.


Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival

The 10-day event includes an array of activities to bring awareness to African and African-American culture. Below are some highlights in Tampa through the start of next week. For a complete calendar of events, go online to

Saturday and Sunday

• Street festival with arts, crafts, food, live entertainment and free health screenings from noon to 6 p.m., Al Lopez Park, 4810 N Himes Ave. A 2K walk or run kicks off the event at 9 a.m. Saturday. Register onsite starting at 7:30. Sunday activities include free jazz featuring Roy Ayers, Az Yet and BK Jackson.

• Soul Roll Invitational Skate Jam: Skate from midnight Saturday to 4 a.m. Sunday; and from 9 p.m. Sunday to 2 a.m. Monday; United Skates, 5121 N Armenia Ave. Tickets cost $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

Call Saletta Coleman at (727) 564-3357 or e-mail


• The TOBA 29th Dr. MLK Leadership Breakfast features Professor Laurence Wesley at 6:45 a.m.; the Hyatt Regency Downtown, 211 N Tampa St. Tickets are $30.

• Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service; 4:30 p.m., Mt. Calvary Seventh-day Adventist Church, 4902 N 40th St.


• Leadership luncheon, "A New Birth of Freedom," celebrates the inauguration of Barack Obama; 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., University Area Community Center Complex, 14013 N 22nd St. $10 per person in cash at the door.

• Free traveling exhibit "And Freedom For All" showcases art at Hillsborough Community College, Dale Mabry Campus Art Gallery, 4001 Tampa Blvd. Runs through Jan. 28. Call (813) 253-7386.

Tampa civil rights leaders to see culmination of work in march, inauguration 01/15/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 15, 2009 3:30am]
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