For the first time in more than a decade, the high-stepping band from Florida A&M University will participate in St. Petersburg's weekend-long Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.
The 375-member Marching 100 Rattlers Band, billed as the "most imitated band in the nation," will headline the Drum Major for Justice Festival of Bands on Sunday.
FAMU will be joined by about 20 bands from the Southeast for the 20th anniversary of this event, which will start at 6:30 p.m. at Tropicana Field. Admission is $10.
"I'm in third heaven," said Sevell Brown, president of the state chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which is co-sponsoring FAMU's appearance. "Any time you can get people excited about continuing the legacy of Dr. King and instill that legacy into the younger generations, it's wonderful."
Most bands participating in Sunday's festival will march in Monday's parade, but FAMU's Marching 100 will leave St. Petersburg on Sunday night.
Getting such a renowned band for a King Day event is difficult, Brown said. The SCLC had been trying since 1991 to woo the band back for the festival. The Marching Rattlers were last seen in the bay area in April 1999 during the Festival of States parade.
Before that, the band performed at the Florida Classic, a football game featuring historically black colleges that has since been moved to Orlando.
"Last year we agreed that they would return as a part of the 20th anniversary celebration," Brown said. "I think it's a very fitting way to commemorate it."
Bands like FAMU's have a rich tradition in African-American culture, Brown said. Their energetic performances and pulsating drumlines have long served as ambassadors of goodwill for their respective colleges and have raised money to provide scholarships for students.
Talented trumpeters and tuba players have inspired local high school students to keep up their grades, with hopes that a college with a good band will recruit them, Brown said. Audience members bop along to the performances from the stands.
Although there is no declared winner at the extravaganza at Tropicana Field, Brown said the event can be competitive.
"Everyone gets the same trophy from us because we want to encourage fellowship," he said. "But make no mistake about it, when the band hits the field, they don't want to be second best. They're battling."
The musical showcase is sandwiched by a number of events this weekend to celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. King.
World champion boxers and St. Petersburg natives Jeff Lacy and Ronald "Winky" Wright will serve as grand marshals for Monday's parade as it travels the boulevard named after the civil rights leader.
About 100,000 people attend the parade each year. For the 20th anniversary, the local ABC affiliate will broadcast the event for the first time.
"This parade is recognized for being one of the best in the nation," said Goliath Davis, deputy mayor and chairman of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. task force. "And it's coming at a truly special time in our history, during Midtown's revitalization."
In addition to the parade, Davis said he is looking forward to attending the Drum Major for Justice Awards Banquet, featuring E.E. Cleveland as a keynote speaker. Cleveland was instrumental in planning St. Petersburg's original commemoration of King in the mid 1980s. That event will be held at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Hilton St. Petersburg.
A leadership awards breakfast at 7:30 a.m. Monday at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N, will raise scholarship money for students. The National Council of Negro Women and MLK Commemorative Committee are sponsoring the event. Tickets are $25.
Other events include high school students reciting essays they wrote about the importance of King's dreams at 7 p.m. Friday at the Enoch Davis Center, an interdenominational service Sunday afternoon at Unitarian Universalist Church at 719 Arlington Ave. N, and a candlelight vigil at 6:30 p.m. Monday at South Straub Park.