Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awards attracts hundreds in St. Pete

01/17/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Today rough weather put a damper on outdoor events commemorating the legacy of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., with parades canceled in Tampa and St. Pete. The early morning storms didn’t keep hundreds from packing into the Coliseum in Downtown St. Pete to honor those who fight locally for equality.

The sunny optimism in the air at the 25th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards Breakfast starkly contrasted the stormy weather outside – not to mention the dark mood pervading in the public sphere in light of recent events. The crowd consisted of local officials, religious groups, and activists from a broad range of backgrounds. Awards presented recognized faith-based initiatives, local humanitarianism, and youth activism. Progress Energy CEO Vincent Dolan related Dr. King’s legacy to civil rights struggles in St. Pete when he introduced the Humanitarian Award winner.

"Service was integral to Dr. King's philosophy. The commitment to making life better for all. This award is presented to an individual who's actions affirm the principles of fairness and equality for which Dr. King stood."

Dolan presented the award to Mary Clowers, who among other things founded the American Cancer Society’s minority development committee. He said her impact on tolerance in the community is visible.

"A glimpse of black history in St. Petersburg would include some of the visible accomplishments and some of the persons who have and are presently generating visible progress and that are making good the promises of American democracy to all citizens."

Clowers humbly accepted, and said the size of the crowd was a sign that King’s message of tolerance and nonviolence is alive and well.

"This is a great day and I want to thank each and every one of you for being here. This is a dream of mine also that this event would go from 50 people to 1,000 very soon."

The event, sponsored by the St. Petersburg branch of the National Council of Negro Women, occurred against a tense cultural backdrop in the days following last Saturday’s shooting in Tucson. She said events like today’s may be heavy on the optimism, but they also serve as a reminder of the work that needs to be done.

"We want to thank you for telling us, reminding us, of our job so that we don't falter along the way, but we will keep going as long as strength endures."

Reverend Wayne G. Thompson built on that message during his benediction.

"God, send us forth as dreamers into a community laced with dream killers that we might help others to fulfill their dreams. Send us forth as doers into a community committed to love one another."

Event coordinator Angela Rouson said today’s turnout surpassed her expectations.

"We are overwhelmed and pleased with the turnout today. It encourages us that people are still committed to Dr. King's teachings and his legacy. We were hoping for at least 900 people and I'm certain that we got over 1,000 today."

She said this is a sign that St. Pete, a city with a history of racial tension and occasionally race-based violence, has come a long way since the civil rights era.

"The community is diverse and becoming more so. It says that we have reached the point where we can sit together as equals and judge each other on the content of our characters, as Dr. King had hoped."

US Attorney General Eric Holder told a church audience that the rampage in Tucson that killed six and wounded US Representative Gabrielle Giffords shows the continuing relevance of King's message of nonviolence. Rouson said recent events and inflammatory public dialogue may be on many people’s minds, but she thinks those who are committed to tolerance and peace outnumber those who embrace violence and bigotry.

"Though there are still some of us who are fighting against making our world one of peace and understanding and love for our fellow man, there are more of us who are committed to working and living together and treating each other with kindness and respect than there are those who are not."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was also a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, which cost him mainstream support in his final months. He was assassinated in 1968, one year to the day after he delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. At 35, King was the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. If he were alive today, he would have turned 82 on Saturday. Other speakers at today’s event included noted Palm Beach lawyer Willie Gary and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

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