Parade one of largest in U.S.

The St. Petersburg event tops even Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace, in size.

Published January 14, 2007

Each year, the spectators come from as far away as Georgia and Miami. They number in the tens of thousands - anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 by official estimates.

Together with city residents, they make St. Petersburg's Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade the largest such parade in the southeastern United States. And that includes Atlanta, the birthplace of the slain civil rights leader.

"This event draws the largest spectator crowd" in the city, said Sgt. Charlie Burnette, special events coordinator for the St. Petersburg police. The police send 100 officers out to the parade each year, making it the fourth largest special event deployment for the city, Burnette said. But some of the larger deployments are for multiday events, he said.

Sponsors of St. Petersburg's parade, including the city and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also believe their parade is one of the biggest in the nation, a mark of pride for many cities. At least half a dozen, including St. Petersburg, Houston, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Texas, Nashville, and even Jackson, Miss., say they have "one of the biggest" parades or marches in the nation.

In many cities, the MLK parades rival celebrations that historically draw large crowds, such as the Fourth of July and Christmas events, even though the national holiday has been around only since 1986.

"Commitment," is the reason for the popularity of St. Petersburg's festivities, said former City Council member David Welch. "It's commitment to the cause by the city of St. Petersburg."

Welch has worked with parade organizers from the beginning, more than 20 years ago. One of his favorite events in St. Petersburg's lineups is the Drum Major for Justice Battle of the Bands and Drumline Extravaganza, in which bands from several states perform at Tropicana Field. That event is a particular draw for young people, he said.

"That encourages our young people to go forward instead of back and that's part of the dream," Welch said.

The actual parade begins today at 1:15 p.m. and includes many of the same marching bands, along with community and religious organizations and student groups. The parade starts at Third Avenue S and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St., goes north to Central Avenue and heads east to Bayshore Drive before ending at Vinoy Park.

Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, who is on the parade city task force, says years of working on the parade and on attracting big name bands - FAMU's marching band has traditionally marched though it has a scheduling conflict this year - have helped make the parade a major event.

"We've been at this now for 20 years," Davis said. "When we started it wasn't this big."