Martin Luther King Jr. parade warms up St. Pete crowd on a brisk day

About 40,000 came out to enjoy St. Petersburg’s 34th annual MLK Dream Big parade in honor of the Civil Rights icon.
Published January 21
Updated January 21

ST. PETERSBURG — Beverly Graveley is a veteran of the city’s annual parade honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and on Monday she looked the part.

Graveley secured a prime viewing spot for the 34th annual MLK Dream Big parade: near the beginning of the route, at Third Street and First Avenue S. She was prepared: she brought a foldable chair and a mini table barely big enough to accommodate her big can of Arizona Green Tea. She even set up her own barter system: She would give the children around her the colorful beads in exchange for the silver ones. She loves silver.

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The 61-year-old retired nurse and city native never misses the annual parade in celebration of the Civil Rights icon’s birthday — not even when she moved to Gainesville for six years to care for a sick family member.

But this year she was a bit anxious. The parade used to run from south Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street to Central Avenue, where the route turned east and ran all the way to the downtown waterfront.

But last year organizers changed the route. The parade now runs west along First Avenue S from the water to Tropicana Field. Like many residents, Graveley didn’t like the change.

“We were mad as hell over there on the south side,” she said. “They need to bring the MLK parade back into the neighborhood.”

But on Monday it was as if the parade had always marched down this route: For three-plus hours, a dozen blocks of what would have been a workday downtown was transformed by some 40,000 attendees into a dazzling array of colors, sounds and smells. The early crowd donned bright blankets to stay comfortable in the brisk air. The smell of barbecue wafted from food trucks. Dogs, horses and even an exotic bird wandered along the route, ferried by their owners.

There seemed to be little separating those on the outside of the parade from the people marching in it. When a group of black “Cowbros” on horseback trotted by 30-year-old food truck driver Roy Blake, the St. Petersburg native shouted a question.

“Are y’all real cowboys?” Blake asked one of the men.

“I am, they ain’t,” shot back the Cowbro from atop the back of a chestnut horse.

King’s visage was everywhere. His face adorned T-shirts and banners and even clipboards. His famous baritone blared from speakers. One of the dozens of volunteers registering parade-goers to vote carried a sign that read “Dr. King wants U 2 vote!”

The memory of King’s words and deeds seemed as relevant as ever. Tony Johnson, a retired toolmaker who moved to St. Petersburg in the ‘80s, said King embodied the idea that good intentions alone aren’t enough to change the world.

“You gotta live it,” Johnson said.

An array of civic leaders and organizations marched in the parade. Teachers, firefighters, police officers, politicians and religious leaders of various persuasions took turns bombarding eager children with candy and beads. St. Petersburg police said there were no arrest and no major incidents this year.

And then there were the performers.

Marching bands, some of which looked more like armies than bands, came from all over to show off their pageantry. Dance troupes performed with a zeal that left some attendees wondering whether the dancers would made it to the end of the parade route.

So, how did the parade stack up to past ones?

To Graveley, few could compare to the display she saw Monday.

“They came out to impress us today,” Graveley said. “Yes they did.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated who changed the parade route.

Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or 727-893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets.

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