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Tampa civil rights leader remembers MLK

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Clarence Fort, Second from the right is seated with other demonstrators at the Woolworth lunch counter in Tampa.  February 29, 1960  Photo by The Tampa Tribune Clarence Fort, Second from the right is seated with other demonstrators at the Woolworth lunch counter in Tampa. February 29, 1960 Photo by The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA, FL (WFLA) -

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Was assassinated while standing on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

Tampa civil rights pioneer Clarence Fort remembers exactly where he was 45 years ago when he heard the news.

Fort helped organize lunch counter protests in Tampa, to help end segregation.

In February of 1960, Clarence Fort, then 21, decided to stand up for civil rights, by sitting down.

Fort was the head of the youth group of the NAACP in Tampa.

Just a few weeks earlier, a group of young black men sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina to protest segregation.

Fort decided to organize a similar protest in Tampa because segregation also existed there.

Fort says many African Americans shopped at the Woolworth Five and Dime, but they were not allowed to sit down at the store lunch counter to eat.

Fort says, "You could buy it, but you could just not sit down and eat it. You had to either get it to go, or stand at the end of the counter."

So Fort went to local high schools and talked others into joining him for a peaceful protest.

It wasn't easy, the day they walked in to the Woolworth's and sat down at the lunch counter the Woolworth employees tried to shut the protest down.

Fort says, "They cut the lights off and they put closed signs in front of us."

The protesters kept coming back, day after day.  Unlike other southern cities, the Mayor of Tampa ordered police to protect the protesters.

The Mayor also appointed a biracial committee to work on ending segregation.

Fort says, "It took from February 29th to September before we actually worked it all out and we had our first sit downs."

A few years after the lunch counter a protest, Fort was working as the first African American bus driver for Trailways.

On a trip to Tampa, he heard that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered.

Fort says, "I couldn't hardly drive from there to Tampa. It was devastating to me. It was something that hurt deep."

The loss he felt was great, but thanks to the lunch counter protesters and the peaceful direction of Dr. King, Mr. Fort believes Tampa was already on the path to racial equality.

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