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Drama continues around St. Petersburg's MLK festivities

Published Aug. 11, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — This much has become clear about next year's celebration to honor civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.: There will be two of them.

Sevell Brown's annual parade will continue as usual that Monday, but will be joined by an inaugural day of service organized by State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

While the debate over what festivities should be held when appears to be over, the drama between the two community leaders isn't.

Brown, who founded the parade more than two decades ago, has written a letter to the U.S. Justice Department alleging that Rouson has threatened his life.

Rouson led the charge earlier this year to move the parade to Saturday, replaced by his day of service.

That would be a more fitting tribute to the slain civil rights leader, he said.

Brown, who refused to move the parade, also claims two other well-connected men in the community — Deveron Gibbons and Jeff Copeland — have made threats against him.

"They have continuously stated that they have people that 'can take me out' as oppose to them having to do it themselves,'" Brown wrote in a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in July.

Brown has not, however, taken his concerns to local authorities. He also refused to provide the Tampa Bay Times with the names or statements of two witnesses he said informed him of the threats.

Rouson, who knew nothing of the letter until contacted by the Times this week, called Brown's allegations "ridiculous."

"Some things do not deserve comment," said Rouson, who also is an attorney.

Neither Copeland, who once worked on Mayor Bill Foster's campaign, nor Gibbons, a former mayoral candidate who sits on the St. Petersburg College Board of Trustees, could be reached for comment.

Justice Department officials declined to comment on Brown's letter.

Tension between Brown and Rouson has brewed for months, and began after Rouson started floating his vision of how the city should celebrate King's birthday.

He is planning a communitywide day of service focused on giving back. He secured a $500,000 state grant to pay for it.

For years, Rouson said, he has heard complaints from residents about the parties that follow Monday's parade.

His solution: Move the parade to the Saturday before the holiday.

Brown balked. He and others who plan the annual parade, considered to be the largest of its kind in the southeast, view Rouson's plan as a hostile takeover. The two men were at a stalemate and did not talk for weeks.

They finally got together at the end of June, when Rouson went before Brown and about 30 parade organizers to explain his proposal. Days later, the group told Rouson they would not change dates.

Rouson continued with his plan.

"We are not fighting the parade," Rouson said. "We're moving positively to uplift King."

Shortly after that June meeting, Brown said two people who didn't know each other told him Rouson, Gibbons and Copeland had made threats.

Brown said he had planned to just pray about the matter, but was pressured by others to take more formal action, which is why he wrote the letter to the Justice Department.

"Because it was a civil rights concern, we went directly to the federal government with it," Brown said.

Brown said he has packets of information ready to be sent to the St. Petersburg Police and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, "if and when the time is right."

Brown's supporters said there's a "trust" issue with local law enforcement.

"I don't think the sheriff or police can handle this situation," said St. Petersburg resident Wanda Black. "It has to go higher."

Rouson, meanwhile, said he is focused on his day of service.

He already has started meeting with interested residents. Over the next few months, he and a community advisory committee will hammer out more details.

"We want to move forward," he said. "It's not about acrimony. It's about community."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at or (727) 893-8643.