Winter Haven Celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park & Monument Rededication
by James Coulter
On July 4, 1776, the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, making America a new country founded upon the ideals of liberty and justice for all. Nearly 200 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders marched to demand those ideals apply to all Americans regardless of their race.
The Founding Fathers gave birth to the American Dream, while Dr. King had a dream that he and his fellow African Americans could share the same blessing of liberty and freedom as other American citizens. So, it only seemed fitting that a park named and dedicated in the honor of Dr. King would be re-dedicated on Independence Day weekend.
On Saturday afternoon, the City of Winter Haven hosted a rededication ceremony to honor the renovations to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park near Lake Silver, along with the installation of a monument honoring Dr. King and local civicleaders. Several city and community leaders gathered together to give remarks about the park’s refurbishment and cut a ribbon rededicating it.
Deputy City Manager T. Michael Starves recalled when he first started working for the city as a lifeguard at Lake Silver. Since then, he has witnessed the city come together to revitalize the park. The overall effort was 21 years in the making, but the result has been nothing short of inspiring.
“It took us 21 years, but we accomplished the mission, and we are grateful for that,” he said. “This park has become a destination that any city in America will be envious of and want to have downtown.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park has a long rich history in Winter Haven. Nearly a century ago, the area served as the location of the annual Citrus Festival, which drew in many guests from across the country, including President Calvin Coleridge, who had arrived to dedicate Bok Tower in 1929. In 1990, the park was renamed to its current title.
Recently, the park was renovated with a new amphitheater and restroom area, which will accommodate the monthly ski shows hosted by the local Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team. Other major improvements include bringing the park up-to-date with ADA regulations and making it more accessible for people with disabilities.
Mayor Bradley T. Dantzler recalled during his childhood in the 1960s how he and his friends would ride their bikes to the lake to go swimming during the summer. Even back then, everyone would come from all over the city to visit and have a good time.
“The park has been the backbone for a long time,” he said. “Truly, it is a park for everybody, which is in line with [Dr. King’s] vision of unity…With all of the improvements, we are now open for business and looking forward to all of you coming out.”
Mayor Pro Tiem Nathanial Birdsong, Jr., on the other hand, also grew up during the 1960s and recalled when the beach was segregated. While he certainly had fond memories of the area, including riding his bike along the path that is now the Chain of Lakes Trail to the Citrus Festival and having enough fun for only $1.15, he admitted that the park and beach were not enjoyed equally by everyone.
How fitting, then, that with the end of segregation, the park was renamed after the civil rights leader who marched to end segregation, and that a monument was erected honoring him along with several local civic leaders.
“I encourage you to read and take a look, and I look forward to continuing to see this public space in use and attending events here for generations to come,” he said. “One event here was the [Easter] Sunrise Service, and it was greatly attended, and it was one of the most integrated places I had ever seen in our city on an Easter Sunday morning because we all need to get ready because there will be no racism in heaven.”
Reverend Clifton Dollison remarked upon the wonderful day of celebration and how it coincided with the city’s Fourth of July celebration, Rockin Freedom Fest. “The true legacy of Dr. King’s Dream is inexplicably woven into the American Dream of freedom and opportunity for all Americans. Dear friends, it would be a tragedy if we did not acknowledge the gallant efforts of the city officials as well as those fellow citizens who championed the renaming of this park in Lake Silver.”