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Thousands across Tampa Bay celebrate MLK's legacy

Thousands across Tampa Bay withstood blustery cold winds Monday to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

Parades in Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Tampa and, for the first time ever, Lacoochee, honored the slain civil rights leader.

At 11 a.m., one of the nation's biggest MLK parades kicked off in St. Petersburg. Kids, parents, teens, grandparents and dogs on leashes lined Central Avenue. Joseph Pratt, a sergeant with the St. Petersburg Police Department, said he expected 20,000 to 40,000 people to watch up to 100 parade floats.

Smells of fried foods, hot dogs and ribs wafted through the air. Men pushed carts, shouting and selling T-shirts and toy swords.

With a big, hearty laugh and a tug on her denim jacket, Hannah Vicks — working a vendor stand on a corner of Central Avenue and Eighth Street S — picked a card from the deck.

Waiting for their hot dogs combos on the other side of the stand, street performers Thomas Buxman, 39, and Benny Mitchell, 40, teased and joked with Vicks, holding out a deck of cards for tricks, and guessing her last name.

"If you start guessing my weight and dress size, I'm going to have to lie to you," she joked back.

The two men scarfed down their hot dog combos by her vendor sign: Fries $2, burgers $3, prayers free.

"That's what it's all about — fellowship," Vicks said, still laughing about the card tricks.

• • •

Perched on the back of a bright orange convertible Mustang in Tampa, Jim Hammond peered out from under a red baseball cap and tossed beads to hungry hands.

In the heat of the civil rights movement, the 86-year-old Tampa native recalls being told he couldn't sit in a whites-only seat in downtown. Now, here was in the seat of honor as grand marshal for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade Foundation event.

Hammond triggered a number of equality initiatives over the years, filing a lawsuit against the University of Tampa that led to the school's integration, convincing GTE (now Verizon) to integrate its employee ranks and leading the "white hat patrol" that calmed rioters after a Tampa police officer shot Martin Chambers in 1967.

Now, the nations's first black president is about to enter the last year of his second term. Tampa's second black police chief took over last year.

If he were alive, "I think Dr. King would realize that his dream is real now, and positive things are happening," Hammond said as the Mustang turned a corner at 21st Avenue and 15th Street, near where the parade began at Cuscaden Park.

Speaking of dreams, being the grand marshal was an honor Hammond never expected.

"I never dreamed of it," he said.

• • •

When the St. Petersburg Sanitation float pumped out music, the whole crowd on the corner of Eighth Street S in St. Petersburg started to dance, but none quite as enthusiastically as Michael Gaines.

He danced, doing the Whip and Nae Nae, along with the song, mostly to encourage his nieces and nephews — who are here from New Jersey — to join in the fun.

Maybe partly to embarrass them, too.

"They don't do the parade like this up North," Gaines said. "I'm trying to get them into it, and show them how it's done."

• • •

Evelyn Green and Lorena Holloman were the self-proclaimed grand marshals of the MLK parade in Lacoochee.

The two women, members of First Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Trilby, were being escorted under blankets in the back of an open-top 1949 Mercury with blue flames painted on the side. Green had been riding in a Pasco County Sheriff's Office vehicle until she was instructed to ride in the classic car, she said.

"I think she got somebody mad, so they put her in here with the top down," joked driver Bill Scaife.

The chilly weather — the temperature was below 50 degrees when the parade started — didn't lower Benita Smith's spirits.

"We were going to be here anyway," said the teacher and church minister, who was walking the route with her husband. "But a little cold for what our forefathers represented, this is nothing."

The Smiths trailed behind the Zephyrhills High School marching band, which led the first-ever parade in Lacoochee. Twenty-six vehicles, a couple pulling floats, followed.

About 50 to 100 people lined the 2-mile route. Many were in pajamas, undoubtedly woken up by the passing marching band.

Next year, the parade may be in downtown Dade City, said Cpl. Jessica Hammond of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office Officer Friendly program. The parade was her idea.

Dade City police Chief Ray Velboom supported the proposal.

"I think it'd be great through town," he said.

• • •

The Allen Temple AME Church in Tampa marked the holiday by bringing together members from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.

Emceed by former Fox 13 anchor Denise White, the 30th annual Interfaith Memorial Service had pews full of guests clapping, singing and listening to messages from community, political and religious leaders.

The Tampa Bay Women's Chorus sang a new song about notable black women who fought against oppression. The Ismaili Community Council for Florida Choir offered a worship song about a "just and kind" Mohammed. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, reminisced about her trip to Selma, Ala., last year, calling it one of the most meaningful experiences of her life.

Keynote speaker Eric Deggans, television critic for National Public Radio and a former Tampa Bay Times reporter, spoke of the power of diversity in the media. He said one of the challenges the media faces in reporting on race and the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not acknowledging history.

Deggans called it "history repeating" itself, saying some of the same issues the nation faced in the 1960s are issues being grappled with today.

The service ended with the presentation of the Robert W. Saunders Award to Dr. Samuel Lamar Wright Jr. and a community chorus of We Shall Overcome.

Contact Hanna Marcus at hmarcus@tampabay.com or (727)-893-8603. Follow @hannaemarcus.

Thousands across Tampa Bay celebrate MLK's legacy 01/18/16 [Last modified: Monday, January 18, 2016 9:21pm]
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