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Rev. Manuel Sykes announces retirement from St. Petersburg church

ST. PETERSBURG —The Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, former president of the local chapter of the NAACP and would-be politician, announced his retirement to his congregation on Sunday.

Sykes, 59, has spent two decades leading Bethel Community, one of the city's most prominent African-American congregations. February would mark his 24th year there.

On Monday, he said that he had long planned to leave the church at 2901 54th Ave. S when he turned 55.

"I went a little over trying to get things together," he said.

Now, Sykes added, "I just felt it was time."

The pastor, whose youngest child is 10 years old, said he was leaving to take care of his health and to finish his dissertation for a doctorate in counseling psychology.

Sykes has been active in civil rights and ecumenical efforts for years. He was a founder of the interfaith advocacy group Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST. His time in the public sphere has also generated headlines.

In 2014, state NAACP officials ordered the local branch to suspend all activities because, according to a letter, the group was not in "good standing." Sykes, then president, was told to hand over the keys to the building, control of the property and the chapter's records. Sykes said that was the result of meddling by state NAACP officials.

That same year, Pinellas County's Democratic chairman left a voicemail message warning Sykes he would be "persona non grata" if he ran against Republican David Jolly in the 13th Congressional District. Prominent state Republicans then started to woo Sykes, and he later switched his party affiliation. He has since switched back to the Democratic Party.

This year, Sykes mulled a run for the Florida House of Representatives, but botched his attempt at elected office when he forgot to sign a disclosure form.

Sykes has been known to speak up on a number of issues affecting St. Petersburg's black community — from a 2000 incident at Tyrone Square Mall, where his son was ejected for wearing his cap sideways, to recently calling on residents in the city's Midtown district to engage in "civil disobedience" to protest what he views as attempts by Mayor Rick Kriseman's administration to gentrify black neighborhoods.

Watson Haynes, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League, said he was not surprised by Sykes' announcement.

"I know that Pastor Sykes has a lot of irons in the fire, things that he really wants to do," Haynes said. "Sometimes a pastor would burn out. I have heard inklings that he may retire."

Haynes said Sykes, who serves on the Urban League board, will be a "significant" loss to Bethel Community.

"Bethel has always had a pastor who is outspoken, from the days of Enoch Davis," he said, referring to the legendary pastor who led Bethel Community for more than half a century and fought to integrate the city's public facilities.

"It's the foundation of a lot of civil rights efforts in the community. What he tried to do was to perpetuate that, to keep that going," Haynes said of Sykes.

But Sykes said his retirement from church life does not mean he'll be leaving public life.

"I've tried to speak up for people that are being taken advantage of in our community," he said, "and I will never give up speaking up on things that are wrong."

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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