King memorial inches ahead

A Times Editorial
Published September 30, 2007

With so much division over the idea of a Largo memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it was a hopeful sign that two members of the City Commission joined hands to try to find a way to get it done.

Showing amazing grace and patience, Commissioner Rodney Woods has continued to plug away at the idea while city leaders have alternately supported, then retreated from the proposal for five long years.

Last week, just when the memorial idea seemed dead for sure, Woods got a pledge of help from Commissioner Andy Guyette.

On Sept. 11, it was Guyette who said that the $60,000 in city funds that had been budgeted to build a small Martin Luther King memorial plaza in Largo Central Park should be pulled and spent instead on sidewalks. Someone had to point out to Guyette that the city's sidewalk program is already fully funded. Still, the commission voted to take back its $60,000 promise, citing a tight budget year.

Woods pleaded for the commission to at least budget $15,000 as seed money for the project, and they agreed.

Woods then asked Guyette if he would help raise private funds for the project by co-chairing a fundraising campaign. "I'd be more than proud to work with you on that," Guyette said, calling the memorial a "community project."

So two city leaders, one black, one white, will put unity ahead of their differences and ask the community for donations. Woods and Guyette first should consult with the city attorney about how to go forward without running afoul of the state's Government in the Sunshine Law.

There are those in Largo who still don't understand why the city needs any sort of memorial to King. The simple reason is that Largo has had a series of racial incidents in the last few years and is known as unwelcoming to people of color. Perhaps more than any other city in Pinellas, Largo needs to declare publicly its support for equal rights and its aversion to racism in any form. It can do that in a visual way by building a memorial that focuses on the work and the philosophy of the nation's most famous civil rights leader.

Some opponents have skewered Woods for continuing to push for a King memorial. He finally revealed last week why building a visible reminder of the rights of all people, regardless of color, is so important to him.

Woods said that about 30 years ago in Metairie, La., he was the victim of a hate crime. While he, his wife and their daughter were asleep, someone torched his car and wrote a racial epithet on the front door of their home. Some well-publicized incidents with racial overtones at Largo High School have brought back those bad memories and convinced Woods that the city should "make an unmistakable statement of who we are and what we stand for."

It must have been especially difficult for Woods when his City Commission colleagues instead cut out the $60,000 for the memorial - shamefully, the only thing commissioners sliced from the 2007-2008 city budget at the meeting, despite their claims of budget troubles.

The alliance between Guyette and Woods gives the City Commission a chance to redeem itself.

Every commissioner ought to work hard to help raise the $45,000 needed for the memorial, which has already been designed as a small, paved plaza surrounded by flowers, centered by a granite lectern engraved with quotes from King's speeches.

City residents who want to change Largo's image as a place that does not value the rights or the contributions of all people, regardless of color, should contact Woods or Guyette to offer a donation or volunteer their time. They can be reached through City Hall at 587-6702 or commission@largo.com.

Do you support construction of a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Largo Central Park, funded primarily through private donations? Why or why not? Send your opinion to the St. Petersburg Times at www.tampabay.com/letters

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