A thousand folks from all walks of life were on hand Monday at the 24th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards Breakfast at the St. Petersburg Coliseum.
The event, hosted by the St. Petersburg Metropolitan Section of the National Council of Negro Women Inc., featured author and motivational speaker Crystal Kuykendall.
Bill Foster, attending for the first time as mayor, called on community leaders and residents to make a yearlong commitment to tutor and mentor young people.
But the feel-good event took an unexpected turn during the presentation of awards.
To sum it up, the air was sucked out of the room. First, one presenter held a captive audience hostage with an unusually long presentation to the worthy recipients of the humanitarian award, members of the St. Petersburg Black Nurses Association.
Then came the shocker, during the presentation of the faith-based award, which honors the local church or churches with the most parishioners at the breakfast. This year's recipients were St. Joseph's Catholic Church and Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.
A gracious speech by the Rev. Timothy Sherwood, pastor of St. Joseph's, was followed by remarks that stunned many in the audience.
"You're the mayor on paper,'' pastor Louis M. Murphy Sr. of Mount Zion told Foster, "but you will not become the mayor until you become the mayor in all of our hearts."
The remark elicited a few cheers from some in the audience, including many of Murphy's parishioners, but the majority of the audience was taken aback.
Like me, they seemed to think that the remark was inappropriate for that event and — given that Foster has been on the job less than three weeks — not fair either.
"I was surprised and felt bad for Bill. It wasn't Bill's event … it was a breakfast to commemorate the legacy of a great man," said Rene Flowers, a former City Council member and Foster supporter.
Murphy's remark reflects the bitterness that lingers in some quarters of the black community, where some activists like Murphy were supporters of Foster's opponent, Kathleen Ford.
Foster cleaned up in the neighborhoods of Midtown, which is where Murphy's church and a large part of his parishioners reside.
But it's time to move on.
Electing a mayor is different from choosing a leader of the flock. The voters of this community have spoken. They chose Foster.
Like it or not, Foster is the mayor of St. Petersburg and should be treated as such.
A humbled Foster said afterward that he was hurt by the remark but appreciative of the outpouring of support from others who approached him to offer words of encouragement.
Later Monday, a much more jovial Foster was greeting residents while walking along the route of the annual Drum Major for Justice Parade.
"Isn't this a wonderful event?" he shouted as he shook the outstretched hands of well-wishers.
Dr. King summed it up best:
"Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. … You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. … You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love."
Contact Sandra J. Gadsden at (727) 893-8874 or firstname.lastname@example.org.