If not for the black community of St. Petersburg and the efforts of civil rights leader Seville Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events in America may be less festive. St. Petersburg may never have become a national hub for community service and civil rights events honoring King’s legacy. And kids like 16-year-old Gibbs High School freshman Marquis Brinson may never have joined Mt. Zion Progressive Baptist Church’s marching band so he could compete in the annual Drum Majors for Justice Battle of the Bands.
Luckily for Brinson, the man emceeing Sunday night’s annual competition in a three-piece silver suit didn’t give up when city police and even King’s principal lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference shot down his idea for a festive, joyful parade to commemorate King’s life instead of the somber, mock civil rights marches in remembrance of the violence and bloodshed he faced in battle.
On Jan. 20, 1986, when then-president Ronald Regan signed a proclamation making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a national holiday, St. Petersburg hosted the first National MLK Parade, down Central Avenue and through the heart of the city instead of south towards the area’s predominately black neighborhoods.
Sunday evening, as thousands filtered into Tropicana Field to watch 10 bands from as far away as Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina participate in the annual drum-line competition, Brown’s smile was glued to his face and a visible spring was in his step — even though the event started an hour late due to traffic.
“The trick was to find a way to reach children where we found them, with their boomboxes to their ears and their brains full of music,” Seville said. “We replaced the sounds coming out of their boomboxes with our bands and when the parade hit the streets, with the drum majors of major universities in their full regalia, children came out in the thousands and learned the legacy of Dr. King through all the fanfare. They knew that all of this was for a man worth remembering.”
Sunday’s drum line competition was the precursor to Monday’s parade, the largest in the southeast, which will begin at 11 a.m. in front of Tropicana Field. Historically black colleges and universities, as well as local high schools, middle schools, community organizations and perennial crowd favorite Bethune-Cookman University of Daytona, marched, crumped and cartwheeled across the baseball diamond.
Marching bands are the “goodwill ambassadors of their universities,” Seville said, and like King, a drum major himself, they’re charged with lifting spirits and leading charges. For cymbal and tuba player Brinson, the payoff of performing in front of thousands was worth the six months of band practices, four nights a week.
“Band helps keep me out of trouble, do well in school, and reminds me to be more like Dr. King and give back to the community,” Brinson said. “I’ve been in band for six years, and we practice so hard, but every time the battle comes around I get excited for the dancing and the music. I can’t even explain it.”
While bands came prepared with everything from rap performances to rhythmic hits from pop princesses like Beyoncé, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, Mt. Zion stuck to traditional drum cadences and showmanship. The 55 musicians, ages 8 to 21, take King’s self-proclaimed title of a “drum major for justice” to heart, said director and deputy with the St. Petersburg Police Department Deon Bryant.
Watching his young leaders take King’s lessons back to their often disadvantaged and high-crime communities, celebrating with friends of all colors and helping those around them, makes the long practices for the parade and Battle of the Bands worth it, Bryant said.
“This is their Superbowl,” Bryant said. “They could be doing anything, they could be getting wrapped up in violence or finding trouble, but they’re here.”