ST. PETERSBURG — It was 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed the Federal King Holiday into law. It was 1986 before the nation officially observed the holiday, and in that same year, it was a St. Petersburg resident, Sevell Brown III, who envisioned commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. using more vibrant actions than the traditional mock civil rights marches.
Hoping to catalyze greater youth involvement with MLK Day celebrations, Brown founded the National Martin Luther King, Jr. Drum Major for Justice Parade, Battle of the Bands and Drum Line Extravaganza. First staged in St. Petersburg with other states later replicating Brown’s idea, the local parade has typically drawn about 100,000 people annually, one of the largest MLK parades in the nation.
To kick off the 30th anniversary of this homegrown MLK event series, the National Christian League of Councils (NCLC) and The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday & Legacy Association, Inc. hosted the Drum Major for Justice Awards Banquet Fri., Jan. 16 at the downtown Hilton in St. Petersburg.
Brown, who is the national coordinator for the MLK Holiday & Legacy Association, Inc. and the national director for NCLC, estimated an attendance of 300 people at the banquet.
Trevor Pettiford, a reporter with Bay News 9, acted as Master of Ceremonies for the banquet. Comfortably grouped around tables, the guests were quickly treated to the sweetly melancholic voice of Pastor Andre Campbell of Elim SDA Church, one of multiple musical entertainers for the night.
A duo from The St. Pete Mime Ministry put on a hauntingly stunning performance, the singer in the shadows as the mime acted out the words and emotions of each song. In contrast, the performances by gospel recording artists Elder Kelvin Jackson and Derek Smith both got many audience members up and dancing along to the jazzy music and clever lyrics.
Between entertainers, Brown took to the stage and honored several community and youth organizations for their commitment to helping all spectrums of society. He also recognized the St. Petersburg Sheriff’s Department and local city and school officials for their continued support of his MLK commemorative creation.
Guest speakers included Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Mayor Rick Kriseman and representatives from the Pinellas County School Board. Several speakers wove remarks on Dr. King’s message with anecdotes about the progress of the African-American community in St. Petersburg and across the globe, helping keep the night’s theme at the forefront of the audience’s mind.
The highly anticipated keynote speaker for the event was Dr. Clifton Davis, an actor, singer, producer, minister and Grammy-nominated composer who first got involved with Brown’s three-pronged MLK event in 2009.
Davis welcomed the banquet guests to the celebration of “the first, the oldest, the original and the largest” MLK celebration of its kind. With a captive audience, he spoke eloquently about Dr. King’s struggles and accomplishments.
“Dr. King was called the Drum Major for Freedom and Justice and with his leadership, the world would change for all people and the freedom envisioned by our nation’s founding fathers was made tangible, like a breeze that tilts the sails of all the individual ships of dreams,” Davis said. “With his life, Dr. King harmonized with heaven in the righteous song of non-violence, peace, love forgiveness, salvation, equality, justice and freedom.”
During his speech, Davis quoted Dr. King and read the Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred.” He also recounted his personal experiences with discrimination and segregation.
“I had a great awakening as a boy from up north going to college in Alabama in 1963,” Davis said. “I remember being forced by my ethnicity to drink water from the colored drinking fountain. I remember being forced to pass by the restrooms marked ‘whites-only’ – it was a dehumanizing time in our nation’s history and … I remember feeling robbed of my dignity and desperately dreaming of freedom.”
After ending his keynote speech to a standing ovation, Davis was presented with the “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drum Major for Justice Legend, Lifetime Achievement and Legacy Award in Music, TV, Broadway and the Movie Industry.”
A surprised Brown was also presented with an award “for his hard work, dedication and unselfish service.”
As part of this multi-day event, the Drum Major for Justice Battle of Bands and Drum Line Extravaganza was held Sun., Jan. 18 at the Tropicana Field. As in previous years, high school and university high-step marching bands from across the nation participated in this event.
“It’s good to see the multiracial nature of the Battle of the Bands and that they’re not just black bands and not just white bands, they’re multiracial, mixed and diverse bands—because that’s the world that Dr. King dreamed of, a world where people were respected not for their color but for the content of their character,” Davis said.
The final event was the MLK National Drum Major for Justice Parade held Mon,, Jan. 19, a three-hour procession of marching bands and of floats designed by local schools, churches and businesses. The procession wove through designated streets in downtown St. Petersburg, with bleachers set up for the general public to get a better view.
According to Brown, he thought of the battle of bands and the parade as a means of inspiring youth to be involved with MLK Day. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a young man when he started to rally for the freedoms of African Americans; the Civil Rights Movement was predominately a youth movement and youth must learn about that struggle and be involved in future movements.”