Over 40,000 people arrived early this cold Monday morning to celebrate the 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade with one commonality: solidarity.
The parade didn’t start till 11 a.m., but locals stood in anticipation along First Avenue S waiting in their sweaters and housecoats, unaffected by the cold and eager to see friends, family and smiling faces.
Once everyone found their spot in the sun, they sat in lawn chairs or leaned on the barricade to watch the pageantry begin. Cars and floats promoting businesses or causes idled by. Marching bands displaying school colors kept time as energetic cheerleaders or color-guard led the way. Local radio stations promoting their channels fired up the crowd, and various local religious organizations promoted their next congregation meeting.
“This is one of the greatest towns in America,” said Brady Johnson, a local vendor and small-business owner. “There’s nothing like it.”
St. Petersburg is a modern example of progressive American idealism; a town brimming with life, art, diversity, business, culture and social awareness. All of which play an important role in how the town celebrates the memory of King on his day of commemoration.
But some have concerns about America’s not-so-distant past and it’s seemingly uncertain future.
“I’m sad. I thought we were beyond this,” Johnson said. “Since the election, I’ll get called certain names now like I did when I was young and living in southern Alabama.”
Johnson has been an active member of the St. Petersburg community for over 48 years. He’s the owner and proprietor of the southern-style catering establishment, Mr. I Got ‘Em, where he can be seen serving food at the Saturday Morning Market.
Johnson once worked for the government in the city’s sanitation department and has lived in St. Petersburg since he was 17. He remembers attending the speeches of King, when the activist came through his part of Alabama, and having had the privilege of meeting and talking with him on several occasions.
“Some black folks then didn’t agree with Dr. King,” Johnson recalled. “I even had a cousin who hated when King came to town. They thought they were comfortable how they were: separate but equal. But I didn’t believe in that, and neither did Dr. King.”
He recalls his father, who worked on the railroads, taking him to see King at a young age. He remembers his father and many others being fearful that what they were doing could have fatal consequences.
“Even Dr. King was scared,” Johnson said as those in the parade waved and smiled to parade viewers. “But I remember him saying he’d rather die on his feet than live on his knees. And he did.”
A man lobbying for signatures asked locals if they were registered to vote and spoke to them about the monopolization of energy companies. A vendor walked by with a wagon in tow full of candied apples as Johnson reflected on the change he has seen in his lifetime.
“I’m well aware I’m black in America,” Johnson said. “I see that every time I look in the mirror. Black people have been in a crisis all our lives, and it affects how we live. But I’m not bitter. I’m happy. I’ve got my own business, a good pension, I even teach a dance class over at the Gulfport Casino. Come on down to the Saturday morning market and bring an appetite, I’ll be the guy in the tuxedo.”
Around 2 p.m., the crowd began dying down. The Talladega Tornadoes marching band concluded the parade with spectacular music and dance numbers. People cheered and waved at the performers clad in crimson and blue, and the 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade came to a close.
The afternoon sun encouraged people to take off their jackets as they gathered their belongings, folded their chairs and headed home or to after parties to continue the celebration. A car that participated in part of the parade played audio recordings of King’s speeches, his voice clear through the static, deep with passion and hope. It’s difficult and unsettling to imagine an America without the voices and philosophies of King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X or James Baldwin.
When asked whether King would approve of the current state of America, Johnson said that America would not be what it is today if King were still alive. “But if America truly wanted to be great,” Johnson said, “all it has to do is treat its people right.”
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