MLK Day Parade and Family Fun Day

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG –Next Monday, Jan. 16, the famous MLK Day Parade will take place winding through the streets of downtown St. Petersburg. But if you are looking for the same old route or the same old parade from years past, you may be surprised.

In November, the city denied longtime organizer Sevell Brown III the permit to put on the parade, granting it instead to the Pinellas County Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Advantage Village Academy (AVA).

Under new leadership, the “MLK Dream Big” 2017 Family Fun Festival has been incorporated into the mix to give residents and visitors a chance to mingle and get to know one another.

“We wanted to find something that was inclusive,” said Toriano Parker, founder of AVA. “That’s where the idea to tack on a day of fun at the end of the parade came from. “We’re trying to have something there for everybody, young or old.”

The parade will disband near Tropicana Field and everyone is invited to cross the street and enjoy the family friendly festival.

For the nostalgic at heart, the parade will indeed take place this year, amidst some doubt. Once labeled nationally as the largest MLK Day parade around, visitors from all over the nation would flock here to partake in the celebration. But Copeland and Parker felt over the years the parade had grown tired and needed some new ideas.

“We didn’t have a whole year to plan for it,” said SCLC Executive Director Jeff Copeland. “That kind of put us behind a little bit.”

But since November it has been phone call after phone call on a daily basis finagling deals with some sweet-talking thrown into the mix to get parade participants to come to St. Petersburg for the big celebration. They even managed to secure Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston as the grand marshal.

“A lot of people committed to go other places,” said Copeland, who vows next year will be a larger parade with more variety of people from around the country.

But late start aside, this year’s lineup is nothing to turn your back on. There is still big name bands on the list, most notably is FAMU’s famed “Marching 100” Rattlers band.

“We really had to kiss up to them,” said Parker, acknowledging the college’s eight-year absence from the parade was due to the stigma associated with past dealings. “They left here on a bad relationship. They didn’t really have any intention of coming back to St. Pete.”

Now with new leadership, however, there seems to be a feeling of fresh starts in the air and positivity that everyone involved hopes will foster more bands, organizations and sponsors jumping on board in coming years.

This year’s big sponsor for the parade is none other than, “Your Southside Lawyer,” James Flynn. In fact, Flynn’s donations made the parade portion possible. Needing to be funded with private donations, Flynn stepped up to cover a huge portion of the parade’s cost.

“I think that it’s important that an African-American business be the principal sponsor,” said Flynn, who is honored to have his name headlining such an auspicious occasion.

Flynn, along with St. Petersburg residents of every race and economic status sees the need in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision and message continuing.

“We have a job to be stewards in the community and provide a good example to the children that are watching us.”

Flynn acknowledges that not everyone can pick up the torch of togetherness in the same way. Some become activists and fight for rights and responsibilities for all races, creeds and religions. Others become elected officials to make important policy changes. Still, others fight the battle on the home front, such as teachers and preachers, tasked with the daily struggle of getting the message of equality out to the masses.

But in the end, “it’s about bringing the community together,” said Copeland.

This year’s parade will have roughly 103 participants, which even with its late start is more than the 70 or so from years past.

“It’s actually bigger this year,” said Copeland.

The first MLK parade took place in St. Petersburg in 1986, but this year is the1st James Flynn “Your Southside Lawyer” presents the 2017 MLK Dream Big Parade. A year when the focus is more community orientated.

Local high school bands will be performing such as Lakewood, Gibbs and St. Pete High, just to name a few, and half a dozen out of county bands.  Organizers hope to show both local and out-of-town residents that St. Petersburg knows how to pull out all the stops when it comes to events.

“I think the MLK Day is a part of St. Petersburg’s legacy and that’s something that my family is going to be a part of forever,” promised Flynn.

This year, the parade will start downtown on Central Avenue near Bayshore. The route is set to wind down MLK Street, maneuver along 1st Avenue South, before finally filtering into the Tropicana Field parking lot along 16th Street South, culminating with the festival, which will be set up in Lots 1 and 2.

The parade starts at 11 a.m. and with more major bands this year, it could possibly last over two hours. But don’t worry, none of the family fun activities will start until the parade is over.

Vendors of all kinds will be on hand, along with St. Petersburg College, Eckerd College and the University of South Florida to provide materials to get more interested in heading to college.

Music and entertainment of all kinds will be on hand and some Day of Service projects have agreed to set up in the parking lot, giving out goods such as toiletries and clothing.

The Family Fun Festival is being sponsored by LA Clipper basketball great and local hero to underprivileged youth Marreese Speights and promises to have a kid zone stocked with amusement rides and games. The Skateboard Alliance will also be there giving away free skateboards, helmets and knee pads. Trainers will be on hand to instruct first timers on how to use their boards.

So, on the MLK Holiday, volunteer, be a parade spectator and enjoy a day of family fun and entertainment, but above all else remember that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands like him of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds died to ensure future generations learn how to work together and see the positive attributes in each other. They died for peace and for a better life.

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