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New hurdle for King memorial

Just when it seemed the $60,000 project was moving forward, more questions arise.

By LORRI HELFAND, Times Correspondent
Published August 23, 2007


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LARGO - The city's on-again, off-again efforts to create a memorial honoring the late Martin Luther King Jr. have hit yet another snag.

Some city residents, including City Commission candidate Curtis Holmes, say the $60,000 earmarked for the project could be better used for sidewalks.

So in response, City Commissioner Andy Guyette Tuesday night suggested taking one more look at the proposal, which the city revived last month.

"I would personally like for us to have another opportunity to discuss it at a workshop before we spend too much time with staff trying to plan this when there seems to be a very large outpouring against this program," Guyette said. "I've only heard of a select few speak up on occasion to support it."

A few residents have complained about funding the monument at city meetings, and Guyette said he had received many complaints by phone and by e-mail, both to his business and city accounts.

But on Wednesday City Commission secretary Shirley Frick said she could locate just two e-mails and a letter to commissioners on the subject.

During Tuesday night's discussion, Mayor Pat Gerard said city leaders have had four years to talk about the project, originally proposed in 2003.

"Let's talk about it when we talk about the budget," Gerard said. "I don't think we need to have a separate discussion."

Commissioner Rodney Woods, the city's first black commissioner, said little during the meeting. But afterward Woods said the rationale raised by some critics was a thinly veiled excuse for racism.

"It isn't about sidewalks, and I think the public is going to see through it," said Woods, who was on the city's Martin Luther King memorial committee before he was elected. "If people don't believe the ugly head of racism is in existence just look back to last election."

During the 2006 campaign, Woods' opponent, Ernie Bach, complained that a picture of Woods published in the Largo Leader was intentionally printed to make Woods' skin look lighter than it is. Bach's supporters denounced him, and 68 percent of voters elected Woods.

"I don't think we can necessarily hide from our history in Largo," Gerard said Wednesday. "We have had some situations in the last eight to 10 years in city administration."

About five years ago, a Largo fire lieutenant was fired after she uttered a racist comment on duty. Around that same time, other city employees came forward with accusations of racial harassment. A fair-housing survey showed racial discrimination in Largo, which is nearly 93 percent white and 3 percent black.

But Guyette said most Largo residents have moved way beyond those attitudes and added that people are truly frustrated about the lack of sidewalks.

Woods didn't criticize Guyette personally, but said Guyette was reacting to a vocal minority.

"That's a part of his constituency and he's looking to serve that constituency," Woods said. "At some point each of us has to realize we represent the city as a whole."

Vice Mayor Harriet Crozier said Wednesday it appeared that officials were hearing from the same people over and over.

"I'm hearing from people that don't want a monument to King in their park," Crozier said. "I'm also hearing from people that are very passionate about it. They want something to remember him by."

Charles N. Gibson was one of a handful of residents who opposed the memorial.

"Is there any rational reason for erecting a statue in Largo Central Park at this time of 'run away' taxes and insurance rates?" Gibson wrote the mayor. " ... It wouldn't make a difference if there were a tribute to George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or even you. It wouldn't fly."

Such friction over honoring King is not unusual, said H. Roy Kaplan, who teaches classes about racism in American society at the University of South Florida.

He recalled a "feud" when St. Petersburg city leaders first talked about turning Ninth Street into Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

White people, in particular, often don't recognize that some of their actions are racist, he said.

"Some things they say and do are very insensitive," said Kaplan, a professor with USF's Africana Studies Department and former executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice, a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting prejudice.

"People have to make a decision that shows they're sensitive to a group of people that don't have power in society," Kaplan said.

Minorities sometimes feel unwelcome in certain communities, Kaplan said. If Largo or other cities want to be progressive, "small gestures like this are important," he said.

"I know there are many programs that deserve additional funds," Kaplan said. "We also have to recognize that quality of life and creating an inclusive community is very important."

In 2003, fraught by racism within city departments and an uneasy history of racial relations, the city appointed a committee to decide the best way to honor King, the slain civil rights leader who advocated unity and world peace. The committee presented a plan for a memorial plaza in October of that year.

Then-commissioner Charlie Harper hailed the vision as "a quantum leap forward."

Other city leaders supported plans for the memorial. But for years it languished, primarily because the plan was tied to other projects.

Several months ago, Woods urged city leaders to revive the project. In April commissioners green-lighted a plan to honor King and other great Americans.

At a July work session, commissioners decided to move forward with a 700-square-foot plaza to honor just King.

After the meeting, Woods said he would see the project through. It's important, he said, because of the city's troubled history of race relations.

By deciding to create the memorial, he said, "Largo made a commitment to the community that its heart had changed."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 22, 2007, 21:38:57]


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