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In death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired change around Tampa Bay

Askia Muhammad Aquil, 71, St. Petersburg, holds a copy of a speech he gave 50 years ago at the University of South Florida after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his speech, Aquil focused less on what King had achieved and more on what still needed to be achieved - honor King with actions, not tears, he said. It was a message civil rights leaders throughout this area preached and that in the immediate aftermath of the April 4, 1968 assassination helped push their agenda of equality.
Published Apr. 4, 2018

An hour before he took the stage inside a University of South Florida auditorium, Askia Muhammad Aquil was still editing his speech.

It was 50 years ago this week, just days after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis, and Aquil, a student activist leader, struggled with what to say as keynote speaker at a USF event memorializing the slain civil rights giant.

"How do you eulogize such a man?" said Aquil, now 71, known in those days as Otha Favors. "The ink was still wet on the paper as I walked out."

In his final draft, Aquil focused less on what King had achieved and more on what needed to be achieved. Honor King with actions, not tears, he said.

It was a message civil rights leaders throughout the area preached and that in the immediate aftermath of the April 4, 1968 assassination helped their push for equality. And 50 years after King's murder, they hope that is the legacy around Tampa Bay from that tumultuous time.

"Dr. King's death empowered countless Dr. Kings," said Fred Hearns, 68, a chronicler of local black history. "He showed us the way. We then had to lead."

King spoke in Tampa on Nov. 19, 1961 at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

A bomb threat delayed the speech by 30 minutes but did not drive away a crowd of 4,200 at the event, which doubled as a fundraiser for the local NAACP.

Afterward, around 30 people had a private audience outside the Armory with King, who spoke of the bomb threat as a way for cowards to scare them.

"He told us to never give up," said Clarence Fort, now 80, who as youth leader of the local NAACP at the time of King's visit had already led the successful movement to integrate Tampa's lunch counters

"He said we'll have setbacks, but keep moving forward."

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Those words stuck with Fort when he coped with the news of King's murder. "I was devastated," he said. "But we had to keep pushing."

A day after King was killed, Tampa's NAACP president Bob Gilder and the city's Community Relations Commission chairman James Hammond told then-Mayor Dick Greco they were so distraught over the assassination that they were ready to resign from their posts, according to Tampa Tribune archives. Citing inaction on racial equality, they felt helpless, they told the mayor.

"Things were absolutely wrong that needed to be fixed," Greco, now 84, told the Tampa Bay Times when asked of that day.

The direct result of the meeting, according to Tribune archives, was the creation of a program to train African Americans for city jobs, which resulted in as many as 60 people getting hired for administrative positions in 1969.

Change was occurring across the bridge, too.

A month after King was killed while in Memphis in support of a sanitation strike by black workers, 211 St. Petersburg sanitation workers, all but one of whom was black, went on strike and demanded higher wages, according to Times archives. Instead, they were fired.

"They were absolutely undaunted," said Watson Haynes II, 65, now president of the Pinellas County Urban League. "The shooting motivated them."

ALL EYES GALLERY: April 4, 2018 marks 50th anniversary of MLK's death

What followed were nearly 40 marches on City Hall that sometimes included King's brother, A.D. King. The fired men returned to work at the end of August and received a slight wage increase, but terms were not as favorable as they hoped.

Still, "because of that strike they formed the Community Alliance," Haynes said. "It brought together white businessmen and African American leaders who continued to work together when issues would come up."

At USF, Aquil's words inspired action in the weeks following King's assassination.

"We will affect a change in the world for we will not be satisfied with the world as it is," reads a copy of that speech he provided to the Times. "This is our memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King."

Aquil founded "One to One Group," which brought together those supporting militant activities and those who chose peaceful means to bring equality. The purpose wasn't to change either's ways, but to agree on a focus.

"Groups like these put together a list of demands that resulted in tangible change," Aquil said, citing the creation of a Department of Africana Studies and better recruitment of black high school students as examples.

Hearns, the historian, believes the area should be forever proud of how it focused on a better tomorrow rather than the sadness of the day.

"It was time to go to work," he said. "And that's what Tampa did. We went to work."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.


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