As Congresswoman Val Demings scrambled across the floor of the U.S. Capitol while a violent pro-Trump mob lay siege to the building on Jan. 6, her thoughts turned to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Was this what the leaders of the civil rights movement felt while demanding racial equality and justice in places like Albany, Montgomery and Selma?
”I was reminded of what it must have been like for Dr. King and so many others involved in the civil rights movement simply trying to hold America to its promise,” she said.
The Orlando Democrat spoke to a virtual audience during Monday’s celebration of King, who would have been 92. The event, presented by the NAACP Clearwater/Upper Pinellas County Branch, was part of a slate of virtual and limited-attendance events held across the Tampa Bay region and the nation to mark the day set aside in honor of King amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In their pre-recorded remarks, Demings, local elected officials and community members all echoed this theme: 2020 was a challenging year, one that hit the Black community particularly hard.
”When we think about all that is going on today — the Constitution and rule of law being threatened, a public health pandemic, the urgent need to reform our criminal justice system, and attempts to suppress our votes and steal an election — can we honor Dr. King for his amazing work enough?” Demings said.
The speakers included children who created yard signs with art and quotes honoring King. They quoted a line from “Strength to Love,” his 1963 collection of sermons: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
It is a line that is more relevant now than ever, Demings said. Footage of King and protesters — from both the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement — were spliced throughout the program along with a reminder for people to vote and make their voices heard.
Across the bay, the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs turned the 40th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Breakfast into a virtual one. The keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor for Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
He told the audience that while the nation faces the “midnight hour,” he still holds out hope that “morning will come.”
In St. Petersburg, volunteers and supporters took part in the St. Pete Youth Farm’s MLK Day of Service to clean up, spread mulch and prepare seedbeds for the urban garden, which sits just behind the Enoch Davis Center on 18th Avenue S.
Last year, before the pandemic, the 34th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Big Parade brought more than 40,000 to St. Petersburg. The Big Dream Parade bills itself as the longest-running parade in the nation to honor King — and organizers did not let COVID-19 end that streak.
This year’s event was a 40-minute, pre-recorded video featured footage of past parades and interviews with residents and community leaders who shared what King’s legacy means to them, and to St. Petersburg.
”Martin Luther King meant hope, freedom and justice — not just for Black people, but for all people,” said city resident Richard Blackshear. “He gave us something to look forward to.”
St. Petersburg police Chief Chief Anthony Holloway said King inspires him to strive for good communication with those around him. Gibbs High School principal Barry Brown said King has always reminded him to keep dreaming for, and working toward, something better for himself and others.
”Even though sometimes the dream may seem overwhelming, every time we come into contact with folks, we have that opportunity to support them, to encourage them, and to enlighten them,” Brown said. “That’s how I look at Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream, and the responsibility that we all have.”
Pre-recorded events were better than no events. Residents said they were grateful to those who organized Monday’s slate for keeping the tradition of honoring King’s legacy alive, and for doing so safely.
“Thank you for helping us celebrate this day even though we cannot be together!” wrote Larilyn Pittman in the comments section of the NAACP Clearwater/Upper Pinellas County Branch’s Facebook Live event. “Beautifully done!