ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Petersburg Metropolitan Section of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) held their 30th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Awards Breakfast Mon., Jan. 18 at the historic Coliseum. Close to 1,300 people crowded in to hear what the controversial keynote speaker had to say.
Rev. Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant, pastor at the Empowerment Temple in Baltimore and a prominent figure in the Black Lives Matter movement, drew some heat for his contentious anti-gay views.
Among his opening remarks, he apologized to the NCNW for putting them in the position of having “to defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” It was neither his intention nor his task, he explained, to speak on anything related to a sermon he preached in 2012, but to speak on the “state of injustice in black America in 2016.”
Bryant noted he was there not to speak out against any community, but to speak to the advancement of African Americans in this hour. He thanked the Tampa-St. Pete area residents who offered him support through social media.
He went on to speak of the state of America, noting that during the latest presidential debate much time was dedicated to the middle class but nothing was said about the poor.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said ‘poverty is the bride of crime,’” Bryant stated. “And America has declared war on crime but doesn’t say a word about poverty.”
Bryant told the crowd that he “hates” where we are as a nation and that there’s a “disproportionate wedge when we deal with the economy.”
“Something ought to upset you to the fact that we don’t have enough to retire,” he said, “so that our parents are working and working and working, and in this hour don’t even receive a gold watch. Something ought to upset you. This is the largest generation of black grown people who live with their parents with no higher trajectory to do more for the generation that comes behind them.”
He pointed out the black people are America’s leading consumers but the “least producers” and that African Americans are still the last hired and the first fired. He lamented the young generation’s false sense of entitlement, when too many of them have cell phones but can’t conjugate verbs. He also wondered how America can somehow find a billion dollars for the lottery but won’t feed or take care of its veterans.
“America owes you, Florida, a debt of gratitude,” he said. “Thank you so much for delivering Barack Obama to the White House. Florida, if we would’ve just have awakened you earlier, you could’ve stopped Bush!”
To thunderous applause at this comment, he followed it by saying, “Whatever you do, please keep Donald Trump at the casino and let’s rebuild an America that will look better for the generation yet to come!
Bryant then delivered an inspirational speech about overcoming obstacles, as he recalled the rough path of his youth when he failed the 11th grade, got kicked out of school and had to secure a GED. He admitted that even his high school guidance counselor told his parents he wasn’t college material, that he should go to military school to get discipline or join the job corps.
Incidentally, that same high school guidance counselor is now an usher at his church.
He recalled ultimately getting into Atlanta’s Morehouse College on probation, graduating and matriculating into Duke University where he received a Masters of Divinity. Prior to pastoring, Bryant served as the national youth and college director of the NAACP for six years. He has led young people worldwide on non-violent campaigns and social activism.
His closing message was one of love.
“I love you, St. Petersburg,” he declared. “I love you, Tampa. I love you, LGBT community. I love you, protestors. I love you, mayor, even if you didn’t give me a key!”
Referring directly to the controversial choice of Bryant being selected as the keynote speaker of this year’s gathering—and his own refusal to give Bryant the key to the city—Mayor Rick Kriseman denied intimations by news outlets, social media and word of mouth that he didn’t want Bryant in St. Pete, or that he wanted Bryant “uninvited” as the event’s speaker.
“Please hear me when I say this to you this morning: nothing is further from the truth,” the mayor stated, adding it is not the function of the mayor to review or endorse the event’s program, as he is an invited guest like everyone else. Kriseman had refused to give Bryan the key to the city due to his message of intolerance.
Aware that many in the community and beyond will look to see how the event unfolds, the mayor said he is “comforted and confident that they will see our city at its best,” pointing out that St. Pete is a city that champions diversity and deeply respects the values that it brings, which includes diversity of background, race, religion and thought.
“My singular encouragement,” Kriseman said, “is for as many of our residents as possible to emulate Dr. King’s example with service of their own. St. Petersburg is a welcoming city. Our doors swing open for all who come to live, work and play. That, of course, includes Rev. Bryant and all others who are here with us this morning, and all who come to St. Petersburg every day.”
After the slightest pause, he quipped: “Maybe except Donald Trump,” which raised a huge collective laugh from the crowd.
Last month the mayor joked on Twitter that he banned Trump from entering St. Pete soon after GOP presidential hopeful Trump publicly demanded the U.S. bar Muslims from entering the country.
While Bryant did not receive a key to the city, he was presented with a glass sculpture of an eagle from the NCNW for “flying through adversity.”
Former Mayor Rick Baker commended NCNW President Angela Rouson for “standing tall” through the controversy and not rescinding her invitation to Bryant.
The morning continued with the awards presentation to community leaders who have made an extraordinary personal commitment to serve humanity.
The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award went to Teralyn Hodge for uplifting all women in the community.
Lyn Johnson received the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award for carrying on the legacy of her father, Cleveland Johnson, Jr. by giving a voice to the voiceless. As publisher of The Weekly Challenger, she works tirelessly to promote the community.
The Youth Educational Incentive Awards went to students T’Nora Deesaw and Asanti Poole, both from Osceola Fundamental High School, and Edgar Martin from Lakewood High School.
Niaya White from Calvary Christian High School received the Brittany Gordon Excellence in Achievement Award and Reverend Louis Murphy, Sr. of Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church received the Faith-Based Award.
Longtime local broadcaster John Wilson, who served as Master of Ceremony, noted to the crowd that the Leadership Breakfast has become one of the most important civic events in the city. The proceeds from the breakfast are used to benefit the human services programs of the NCNW St. Pete
To reach Frank Drouzas, email email@example.com