Keith Vann knew Monday morning he was not going to miss this parade.
Vann, a Memphis native, speaks of walking as a boy with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights leader's last march in Tennessee in April 1968.
"I was blessed in that sense," said Vann, 52.
The April march was part of a sanitation worker strike. Vann's grandfather collected garbage. The day after the march, King was gunned down at the door of his Memphis motel room. A federal holiday was established on the third Monday in January to honor King's birthday.
This year, in Atlanta, King's birthplace, events included a special service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he and his family members were preachers. Across the nation, some marked the day with community service. Other celebrated with song.
St. Petersburg's parade boasted 93 entries and snaked through that city's downtown for three hours.
In Pasco County, the annual King celebration at Union Missionary Baptist Church had all the usual markings of a small-town church event — plenty of hugs and handshakes and Tupperware containers filled with food — along with a speech by Port Richey lawyer Kenneth Foote, who was the first in his family to attend college.
Foote said children need not have only a vision for their futures, but they also must be willing to work hard for it. King used to say that every person is responsible for his own freedom, Foote said.
"So get out there and do what you're supposed to do," he said.
In Tampa, police estimate that 8,000 to 10,000 people came out to enjoy the floats, music, marching bands and beads at this year's parade. Politicians — among them, Hillsborough County Commissioners Kevin White, Kevin Beckner and Mark Sharpe and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio — tossed beads into the crowd along the route from 15th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to 22nd Street and Osborne Avenue.
Heather Conyers, 22, who never misses an MLK parade, fought a chilly wind to wait for this year's.
The day, she said, is important as a celebration of King's birthday and also as a way to remember his vision for America.
"If we don't keep it going, it will die out," Conyers said. "We are keeping his dream alive."
Conyers was there with her mother, Hazel Conyers, who started taking her children to the parade years ago.
"It has come a long way," Hazel Conyers said.
Grills blazed on nearly every block and the aroma of barbecue blanketed the streets. Folding chairs lined the nearly 1.4-mile parade route and throngs of people filled the streets and sidewalks.
The revelry was all for good reason.
"It has a historical value to our young people," Vann said. "To preserve things that people my age group had to live through."
Times staff writer Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or [email protected]