Local civil rights activist recalls Dr. MLK's Tampa speech 50 yrs after assassination

Posted at 5:31 PM, Mar 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-22 21:00:04-04

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is April 4, 2018.

Clarence Fort, 79, not only remembers the iconic speeches Dr. King has become so famous for, but he also attended one in Tampa on November 19, 1961.

“He spoke for about 30 to 40 minutes,” said Fort. “You could hear a pin drop in there. Just to see him was amazing, just like seeing a rock star. He was telling us 'don’t give up; stay motivated and do everything you can to get change.'”

Fort says there were nearly 5,000 people there that day to see Dr. King speak.

"He was talking about the injustice in America and how it was so different from what we went through," said Fort.

Even though he was just 20 years old at the time, Fort was in the thick of the civil rights movement in Tampa at the time. The year before Dr. King gave the speech at the Ft. Hesterly Armory in Tampa, Fort and 35 other African Americans sat down at the Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Tampa leading the way in the area for desegregation.

The armory, now known as the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center on Howard Avenue in Tampa, experienced a bomb scare while thousands waited for Dr. King’s speech. Fort says everyone was evacuated. Police were all around. It didn’t take long to figure out there was no bomb and Dr. King delivered… as he had many times before.

On April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was assassinated.

“He was like our savior at that time. He had done so much. I was driving a route from Miami to Tampa and when I pulled into Sarasota, that’s when I got the news. I could hardly finish the trip to Tampa. I could hardly contain myself,” said Fort.

Fort was the first African American bus driver for Trailways in Florida. His chance to help with desegregation was made possible, largely in part, by the movement Dr. King pushed. In his death, Fort said it was time to push even harder and go even further.

He and others continued their movement in Tampa, pushing for equal rights legislation and so much more. Fort himself is credited with starting the Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Tampa. That parade is now in it’s 29th year in the city.

His lifelong mission has been to continue to show the next generation their past, while helping them understand it has helped with their future.

Fort’s name has also been immortalized in Tampa. A Tampa park located at 2705 E. Osborne Avenue has been named after Fort. The Clarence Fort Freedom Trail is yet another accomplishment on his civil rights resume.

The dream started with so many, but was lead by one man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Even now I go back and listen to some of his speeches and it’s just so motivating," said Fort.