King memorial brings unity in Largo

Two commissioners who have argued about it now will work together to find funding.

By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2007

LARGO - Two city commissioners who have disagreed about a memorial to honor Martin Luther King Jr. last week pledged to work together to support the project.

The alliance between commissioners Rodney Woods and Andy Guyette is the latest chapter in the city's long-running and sometimes divisive discussion of the memorial.

Woods, the city's first black commissioner, was the only one to vote against the $133-million budget Thursday night.

He did so on principle, he said, because a $60,000 memorial plaza to honor King was the only item that commissioners deleted from the 2007-08 budget.

"A budget is a philosophy and it just demonstrates where one's heart, mind and soul is," Woods said. "The one item I see deleted is special to me and I think special for the city."

While the item was cut, commissioners did earmark $15,000 as seed money to possibly honor King in the future.

Then Woods asked Guyette, who had made the initial suggestion to reduce funding, if he would co-chair an effort to raise additional funds to build a memorial.

"Maybe we can work together and work in this community and build that spirit of love and that spirit of unity that I so definitely know that Largo is about," Woods said.

"I'd be more than proud to work with you on that," Guyette said without hesitation.

Guyette said he opposed how the memorial was funded, not the memorial itself.

"I'm looking forward to working with him," Guyette said. "I don't see it as much of a problem to get the $45,000 we need."

And Friday, Woods disclosed one reason why the memorial is so significant to him: He has been the victim of a hate crime.

"It's very personal to me," said Woods, 50.

About 30 years ago, six months or so after Woods moved to Metairie, La., with his wife, who was white, and their 1-year-old daughter, someone knocked on his door one morning.

He went outside to see the front of his brand new blue Pontiac LeMans in flames.

On his front door was a handwritten note. It said: "Get out of Bucktown n-----."

"I had moved to the heart of David Duke country and unmistakably they let me know I was not welcome," said Woods, who is now single.

Woods didn't leave right away, but he spent many sleepless nights worrying about his family's safety, he said.

Two weeks ago, a racially charged incident at Largo High School stirred up those feelings again. A black freshman got into a fight with a white student who called him several racial epithets. Three years ago, a man yelled a racial slur at that freshman's older brother and placed a noose around his neck.

The most recent incident reinforced Woods' opinion that Largo leaders need to make a statement that attitudes like those are in the past.

"If we adults sitting up here as leaders can't get it right and make an unmistakable statement of who we are and what we stand for, how can we expect our children in high schools get it right?" Woods said.

Before he was elected to the commission in 2006, Woods was prompted to get involved in the city by conflict between Largo and the Greater Ridgecrest area over honoring King. He was selected to serve on the city's King memorial committee, which presented a plan for a memorial plaza in 2003.

At the time, there were also accusations of racism in some city departments and a housing study showed evidence of discrimination in Largo.

But plans for the memorial languished for years, primarily because they were tied to other city projects.

Early this year, officials revived the project, only to have some residents say it's funding would be better spent on sidewalks.

With $400,000 budgeted for new sidewalks and repairs, most commissioners said the program was well-funded. Still, two weeks ago, commissioners agreed to postpone the memorial.

Now, Guyette said, it's vital that residents step up and show their support.

"Many wanted to say its Rodney's project," Guyette said. "It's really a community project."

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