ST. PETERSBURG — In years past, Ken Welch walked along the parade route and enjoyed interacting with the crowd.
But in this year’s parade, on the day honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Welch traveled in a safer and more fitting manner for St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor: In the passenger seat of a Jeep Gladiator, masked up, accompanied by his wife, daughters and rescue pup Sunni.
The 34th annual MLK Dream Big Parade returned Monday and marched west along First Avenue S for the first time since 2020. The mayor noticed a dip in attendance and fewer bands this year, but he understands. He contracted COVID-19 for a second time earlier this year — despite being vaccinated and boosted — and was forced to hold a virtual inauguration.
Still, he was still pleased to see Tampa Bay’s biggest parade honoring the civil rights leader return to downtown. King would have been 93 on Monday.
“This is a celebration of our city and I think it’s a real celebration of our path forward,” Welch said.
Across the bay, Tampa’s annual Martin Luther King Day Parade was led by grand marshal Thaddeus “Titus O’Neil” Bullard as it marched from Cuscaden Park to Middleton High School. The parade featured rival bands of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities, the Florida A&M Marching 100 and the Bethune-Cookman Marching Wildcats.
Thousands braved a chilly Florida winter day to watch the parades. They basked in the occasional warmth that came each time the clouds parted and the sun broke through.
While many lined up along the St. Petersburg parade route waiting to catch beaded necklaces, some parts were sparsely populated. Workers came out of their businesses to watch while others peered down from balconies or from top of parking garages. They cheered for out-of-town bands, like Miami’s Booker T. Washington High School and Miles College of Fairfield, Ala., and for local bands from Osceola, St. Petersburg, Seminole and Dixie Hollins high schools.
The mayor was followed by his alma mater’s band, Lakewood High School’s Marching Spartans. When the band director introduced Welch to the kids, the mayor said, “you could see it in the kids’ eyes like, really?”
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The bleachers at the nexus of the parade at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and First Avenue S were full as usual. That’s where Tacara Anderson parked her golf cart, which she rents every year to drive her daughter, nephew, four nieces and granddaughter to the parade.
When the parade was canceled last year, she kept the tradition going. They just rode around downtown.
“I think it gets better ever year,” said Anderson, 36, of Coquina Key. “I’ve been told of all the parades in Florida, this is the best one.”
Angel Banks, 22, traveled south for nearly two hours with her family of seven from Citrus County and spent the night in St. Petersburg to get a spot up close near the beginning of the parade route on Third Street S. She looks forward to the bands.
Banks’ mother has been coming to the parade since she was a child growing up in St. Petersburg. She said the holiday teaches togetherness, and shows how all races and nationalities can come together.
“And to love (each other),” Angel Banks said. “No matter the race, the nationality.”
Snowbirds Diana and Vance Garry and Georgeann MacKinnon have been marching and protesting for 50 years, starting with the Vietnam War when they were students in Massachusetts. They traveled from Englewood because they heard there would be a voting rights rally and held signs that read “Democracy Equals Voting Rights,” “1 Voice 1 Vote Now” and “Count Me In.”
They thought voting rights would be a bigger deal at this year’s parade, as voter restrictions are being passed by state legislatures across the country.
“I thought because it was Martin Luther King,” MacKinnon said, “I thought (the parade) would be more political than it is.”
There were some groups that emphasized voting rights during the parade: houses of worship.
Those marching with the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg held signs that read “MLK Fought For Your Right to Vote” and “Don’t Let Senate Steal the Vote.” Temple Beth-El marchers’ signs read “Stand Up For Justice” and “We Marched Then. We’re Marching Now.”
Pinellas County Democrats rallied along 16th Street S along with several candidates running this year, including Lindsay Cross for House District 68, Eunic Ortiz for State Senate District 24 and Joseph Saportas for House District 67.
“We got the best reaction: Thumbs up, so many ‘We’re going to vote them out,’” said Pinellas County Democratic Party chair Lucinda Johnston. “We weren’t giving anything but smiles and waves and they were giving them right back.”
She added: “If MLK were alive today, he’d be a Democrat.”