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On King’s birthday, Tampa Bay parties, marches, reflects

ST. PETERSBURG

Teenagers dunked on 8-foot basketball hoops, parents feasted on hot dogs and snow cones and gospel music blared from a wall of speakers in Tropicana Field’s parking lots.

While thousands buzzed around them on Monday, Destiny and Dameka Robey rested after taking in their first Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade together.

Destiny Robey carried a bright kente bag and wore a T-shirt covered with the face of activist and scholar Angela Davis.

"Good music, eventful, a lot of different shades of melanin," she said. "Just this collectiveness, this togetherness, this community, it was beautiful."

But amid all the celebration, she said, there’s plenty of work to be done. "White supremacy is still real. We still experience it on a daily basis."

Dameka Robey donned a gray hoodie reading "TRAYVON," in honor of the black teenager fatally shot in Sanford by a neighborhood watch member in 2012. She said her clothing was just another way she showed unity with other black people.

"It’s very important that we still do that today."

People from all over Tampa Bay found their own ways to show that unity at the MLK Dream Big Parade.

Kids, parents and grandparents huddled in puffy jackets and hoodies, lining First Avenue S in camping chairs, wheelchairs and strollers. They bounced in step with drumlines and mimicked dancers. They sang along to Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang, Bruno Mars and Cardi B.

Sons and daughters lunged over the railing to high-five police officers on horseback. Brothers and line brothers passed out beads and candy. Parents squeezed past bicycles and strollers to follow marching bands from Florida A&M University, Tuskegee University, Talladega College, South Carolina State University, Edward Waters College and more.

Leteia Rogers, 52, of St. Petersburg sat near Tropicana Field in a motorized wheelchair under a pink blanket, holding her grandchildren’s beads as they leaned over the fence. She loved the bands and the dance groups. At the same time, she stressed, she wanted the kids to understand whose birthday party it was.

"It’s important that they know what the celebration is about," she said.

Lisa Armstrong, 46, and Anita Richardson, 52, two St. Petersburg women and members of Nu Body and Soul Steppers, performed early in the parade and went back to watch after they were done.

"It’s a day to reflect," Richardson said. "It’s a day to give, of service, so I feel like being in the parade is giving a service."

But that doesn’t have to conflict with the fun of it.

"We showed up and showed out," she said.

Harold Bell, 55, said he likes to come to the parade to spend time with his nephew.

"It’s a blessing to come out here, see the parade without violence, celebrating his birthday."

Some 45,000 people came out, St. Petersburg police estimated. There were three minor medical calls but no arrests or other incidents.

Across the bay, in another holiday tradition, an estimated 1,000 people gathered at 6:45 a.m. in the Hilton Downtown Tampa for the 38th annual Tampa Organization of Black Affairs Leadership Breakfast.

The first breakfast was held in 1979, when neither Florida nor the nation recognized King’s birthday as a holiday, so it required an early start so attendees could go to work. Though the third Monday in January is now a holiday, the breakfast continues its early start as a reminder of the fight to recognize King’s legacy.

The Rev. Janae Pitts-Murdock of Fayetteville, Ark., delivered the keynote, issuing a call to action and noting that the "alarm sounding in our country" is not heard by everyone.

"There are people sleeping comfortable in their affluence and their apathy," Pitts-Murdock said. "They are unaware at best, unmoved at worst."

She detailed the discouraging challenges facing African-Americans and the nation as a whole, but also celebrated that they’re not alone in fighting for racial equality. "There are conscious and courageous persons who have never felt the pains of racial prejudice or economic alienation, yet you choose your privilege and your influence for the betterment of humankind."

She encouraged the audience to recognize that King’s legacy isn’t about sentimentality and nostalgia, but about action — and she challenged Tampa to focus on education, economic empowerment, entrepreneurship and a "self-love that defies the anti-black rhetoric seeping from national platforms."

Times columnist Ernest Hooper contributed to this report.

     
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On King’s birthday, Tampa Bay parties, marches, reflects