TAMPA — The annual celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday kicked off Jan. 5 with an inaugural fundraiser that organizers hope will boost a long-standing scholarship program for years to come.
Hundreds gathered at TPepin Hospitality Centre to honor the late civil rights activist and celebrate local heroes at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Parade Foundation's "Live the Dream Legacy" dinner and gala.
The foundation partnered with Hillsborough County and City of Tampa MLK Memorial Scholarship Fund to offer two high school students money raised from its "Give $28 to Help Educate" online crowdfunding initiative.
Antania Dixon, a senior at Tampa Bay Technical High School, works two jobs, plays sports, and maintains a 4.2 GPA – all while helping her mother care for her younger siblings.
Cregory Boatwright, also a senior at Tampa Bay Tech, hopes to one day own a business. He is an honors student who carries a 3.5 GPA.
In a separate interview, gala chair Sherryl Cusseaux said more students will receive scholarships as the fundraiser continues.
Donations thus far have totaled almost half of the $28,000 goal, she said.
"We'll raise money until the goal is met," she said.
This year marks the 28th year of the annual parade, which draws thousands to a route that travels two miles through East Tampa.
For the same number of years, dozens of students have received money for college from the scholarship fund.
Foundation leaders established the gala in hopes of raising more money for scholarships while acknowledging the contributions of those whose lives "epitomized the legacy of Dr. King," said gala chair Sherryl Cusseaux.
One of those honorees was Clarence Fort, the civil rights activist and former sheriff's deputy who also played a major role in the early days of the parade, which started as a march through downtown from the former St. Paul AME Church to the county courthouse.
He also oversaw the collection of scholarship contributions from Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office staff.
In his remarks, Fort gave credit to his "faith, family, and friends."
"Without these three, I would not be where I am," he said.
Other recipients of the Legacy Award were Frank Bell — who co-chaired the parade with Fort for many years — and the late Freddie Jean Cusseaux, who helped organize the first parade in King's honor in 1969.
Samuel Wright, founder of the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival and former University of South Florida ombudsman, was named a Drum Major for Justice awardee. He shared the accolade with former state senator Arthenia Joyner, renowned attorney Delano Stewart, and W. James Favorite, pastor of Beulah Institutional Baptist Church.
The success of this year's gala has cemented it permanently as part of the foundation's King celebrations, Cusseaux said.
"It exceeded our expectations," she said. "We couldn't have asked for a better audience and core group of sponsors."
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MLK Jr. Parade
The 28th Annual Martin Luther King Parade begins at noon at Cuscaden Park, 2901 N 15th St. in Tampa. Longtime Florida Sentinel Bulletin editor Gwen Hayes and NFL Hall of Fame member Derrick Brooks will serve as Grand Marshals. For more information and to see the parade route, visit mlkjrparade.com.