lant City residents celebrated the 37th annual Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Festival at a kickoff event at the Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center last Friday with an opening ceremony and luncheon followed by a weekend of parades, awards ceremonies and celebrations.
At the kickoff, Improvement League of Plant City (ILPC) board member Gwendolyn Thomas and Mayor Nate Kilton welcomed the crowd followed by performances by Lincoln Elementary IB Magnet School’s strings and chorus groups. Marshall Middle Magnet IB World School’s Gentlemen’s Quest club, donned in black suits and sunglasses, shared words of inspiration with the audience. Keynote speaker Pastor Maxie Miller of New City Church of Plant City then spoke about the importance of seeking education through academia, military service or learning a trade.
Miller, who earned a Master of Divinity from Samford University and a Doctor of Ministry from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, stressed education as a way to become quick and resolute thinkers with the ability to discern truth from fiction. “Most people think the purpose of education is to equip them so they can forever trample over the masses or furnish them with noble ends rather than a means to an end,” he said. “It seems to me education has a two-fold function: one is utility and the other is culture, making us better citizens and people of God accomplishing the things He want us to accomplish.”
He asserted that King’s message about education is as relevant today as it was when he wrote them in an article published in 1947. “Intelligence plus character is the goal of true education,” he said.
The following day, the streets of downtown Plant City were filled with revelers enjoying the high school marching bands, floats and $3 million worth of classic Corvette cars. ILPC President William Thomas Jr. said the cold weather didn’t stop hundreds of people from coming out to enjoy the event. “There was a very diverse crowd lined up and down the parade route,” he said.
After the parade, a Battle of the Bands at the Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center drew local school bands that competed for cash and prizes. Strawberry Crest High School won first place but Plant City High School, its first year in the competition, nabbed the second place spot. Both schools received $1,000 checks for their music departments.
The following day, six students were presented scholarships at a Leadership Breakfast. Several local organizations were presented awards for their positive contributions to the city, including The United Food Bank of Plant City, recognized with the MLK Leadership Award for its Feeding Our Legacy program that provides food to the city’s senior population.
Monday saw a standing-room only crowd at The Bing Rooming House Museum for a celebration hosted by the Woman’s Club of Plant City, where keynote speaker Keith Worth shared his rendition of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. As he began reciting the words from memory, a voice in the audience piped up. “I was there,” said Plant City resident Gloria Carter Cozart.
While a student at Tennessee State University, she was among the more than 100,000 people that gathered in the park between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on that hot August day in 1963 to hear King speak to the throngs of civil rights activists. During his speech, she recalls standing close to the stage and hearing the voice of legendary gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson, who was standing behind King, say, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” King then set his prepared notes aside and shared his dream. She said she returned to Washington in 1983 for the March on Washington in honor of the 20-year anniversary of King delivering the famous speech.
Cozart said Worth did an excellent job with his rendition of the speech. He received a standing ovation after he spoke the last words. “It’s important to me as a black woman that we continue the dream because it hasn’t yet been fulfilled,” she said.
Woman’s Club of Plant City member Karen Griggsby was happy to see so many people attend the event. “King taught us how we ought to be as a people when we come together in Plant City,” she said. “As a community and as a society we don’t have to give people with hate in their hearts a voice.”
Williams is grateful for city leadership’s support of the MLK events. “African-American history is part of the fabric of Plant City and city leaders have really gone all-in this year to help make MLK events a success,” he said.
ILPC member Beatrice Crowell said even though MLK Day has passed, there’s no time to relax. “We’re already starting planning for next year’s events because it’s important to keep King’s legacy going in our young people to instill in them the importance of his message,” she said.
Mayor Kilton is grateful for the volunteers that work to host the MLK festival. “This event is a great contribution to the community,” he said. “It’s an excellent way to kick off the new year and set the tone for 2023,” he said.