As the nation prepares to celebrate what would have been the 93rd birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it seems fitting to reflect on his sacrifice and that of others who selflessly pursued equality and fairness for Black people in America.
This year’s commemoration of the civil rights leader’s birthday occurs at a significant time for St. Petersburg, falling as it does days into the tenure of the city’s first Black leader. Like President Obama, the election of Mayor Ken Welch – forever linked to words such as “first” and “historic” – must be credited to the momentum of an era galvanized by Dr. King’s compelling campaign for racial equality.
As in cities across the nation, St. Petersburg produced its own African-American heroes who fought tenaciously against segregation and other unjust and demeaning systems. Names like Dr. Robert Swain, Dr. Fred Alsup, Dr. Ralph Wimbish and Chester James Jr. are just a few that evoke reverence within the city’s Black community.
Alongside them are the “Courageous 12,” Black police officers eventually victorious in challenging their department’s racism.
But it was St. Petersburg’s bitter four-month sanitation workers’ strike in 1968 that’s often regarded as the watershed moment for racial justice in St. Petersburg. It was a strike that drew Dr. King’s brother, the Rev. A.D. King, and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the civil rights leader’s trusted advisor, to the city months after Dr. King’s death.
Even so, as recent studies commissioned by the city have revealed and Black Lives Matter protests across the nation have shown, there is still much to be done to realize the hopes expressed in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation,” Dr. King said then.
And with great prescience, he cautioned, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
I sought out Imam Abdul Karim Ali, one of the religious leaders chosen to give the benediction for Mayor Welch’s inauguration, to talk about the 1968 sanitation strike and its place in the city’s history.
In case you’re wondering, it was Ali’s father, Joseph E. Savage, who led resolute Black strikers and their supporters – a local Quaker was arrested for lying down in front of a garbage truck – on marches, sit-ins and pray-ins. In the end, a resolution gave some gains to the strikers and their families, but as Ali and others see it, the wider Black community benefited to some extent.
A familiar name, David Welch, the late father of St. Petersburg’s new mayor, was among the negotiators who worked to end the contentious and racially charged action for better pay and working conditions. Welch became the first Black co-chair of the biracial Community Alliance formed to ease racial tensions and bring attention to the city’s racial disparities. The accountant and businessman went on to serve on the City Council for three terms.
“A lot of good things began to happen because of that strike,” Ali told me this week. “People are still talking about that today. That strike had a greater impact on St. Petersburg than anything else. Some people might disagree with me.”
Besides the creation of the Community Alliance, he pointed out, there was the election in 1969 of C. Bette Wimbush as the first Black member of the City Council. And James B. Sanderlin, the lawyer who represented the sanitation workers, went on to become the county’s first Black judge.
Ali, a Georgia native who visited his father and his new family in St. Petersburg as a youth, wasn’t in St. Petersburg during the strike, but that doesn’t stop him from being proud of his father’s role. “My dad found his calling and he gave himself to it and look what happened,” he said.
But Joe Savage was “not the only soldier,” he emphasized. “There were some bold and courageous men that supported him.”
Ali told me the story of his father’s retirement banquet at the Princess Martha Hotel in 1989. The venue was packed with family, co-workers, church members, politicians and business owners, but he was most proud of what was said by the late Ruth MacLennan Uphaus, a white woman who was a staunch civil rights supporter. “When she made her remarks, she said, ‘Joseph was our Martin Luther King of the city of St. Petersburg.’”
In 2006, the city named its sanitation compound the Joseph E. Savage Complex.
Like the sanitation strike during the civil rights era, Mayor Ken Welch’s Jan. 6 inauguration will be regarded as another watershed moment for St. Petersburg. And from what he’s said so far, the new mayor is keenly aware that the job of fulfilling the dream of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke continues.
There’s been progress, Ali acknowledged, but added, “We still have a ways to go.”
Virtual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration service
Interfaith Tampa Bay and the Hillsborough County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Committee will hold a virtual interfaith service in honor of the civil rights leader, 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 16, at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg. The theme is “Reaching for Human Excellence.” Keynote speaker will be Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers, with St. Petersburg City Council Member Deborah Figgs-Sanders the emcee. The service will be livestreamed at stjudesp.org.