Thursday, August 22, 2013

Miami Prepares for 2013 March on Washington with a March of its Own

Miami Prepares for 2013 March on Washington with a March of its Own 
Story & Photos by José Pérez

As the historic milestone commerating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington dawns in just days, leaders in Miami gathered to stage a pre-march against the backdrop of evidence that little has changed for Black America since 1963.

Dr Reverend Carl Johnson, pastor of the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church which hosted the event, declared during the opening prayer for marchers that “we march for justice, jobs, peace, and freedom. Symbolically, we’re marching to tumble down walls.”

State Representative Cynthia Stafford acknowledged the contributions of people who participated in the 1963 march.   “You were marching for me when you marched for jobs, justice, and freedom.”

The march participants, who numbered approximately 200 people, began the procession with those at the front of the group singing “We’ve Come this Far by Faith” while only murmurs , good-natured laughs and Sunday morning gossip cascaded over the shuffle of feet at the rear.  The marchers paraded past abandoned houses and empty lots that dotted the landscape amidst proud houses and manicured lawns in North Central Miami-Dade County, many holding open umbrellas for relief from the strong August sun that was beating down upon them, some in their Sunday best, others in t-shirts and shorts, but all moving forward.
Goodwill Ambassadors from Miami-Dade County were passing out water at stations along the way to provide some relief for participants on a humid morning.

Also, PICO United Florida hosted a community prayer and march at Greater Bethel AME Church  in Overtown this week.  The event at Greater Bethel was a bon voyage ceremony for a tour that is scheduled to make stops and hold similar events along the way to Washington, DC in Sanford and Orlando, Florida, Atlanta and Durham, North Carolina.   The bus tour en route to this week’s March on Washington also pledged calling attention to ongoing civil rights and economic troubles for minorities in the United States.

Activist Ron Fulton, an uncle of the slain Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin, participated in the march at the 93rd Street Baptist Church to fulfill a promise.  “I made a commitment a long time ago to do everything I can do to bring equal and fairness to our justice system and our community.  I’m hoping that this will be the start of civil rights and economic change.”

Speaking of the large divide between what he called the “haves and have nots,” Fulton expressed concern over possible backlash to any change that may come from entrenched sectors of the country. “It’s already dangerous because certain people don’t want to change.”

Algernon Austin, a researcher for the Economic Policy Institute, published figures that lends credence to Fulton’s statements. Those figures are sobering.  

Austin found that almost 50% of “poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.”

Additionally, wrote Austin, the same relative percentage of black grade school students (approximately 75%) attend “majority black schools” today as they did over forty years earlier.  Most of these de facto segregated schools are not on equal footing in terms of resources as schools with a majority of white students. 

 Austin’s research also revealed that unemployment figures for both blacks and whites have gone virtually unchanged since 1963, hovering at a 2 to 1 ratio.  The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study also showed that the 2012 jobless rate for blacks (14%) is higher than the unemployment rate for the entire United States during the Great Depression (13%).

But having a job has not necessarily been good news either.  Austin’s work looked at how the past half century has not shown improvement for black workers in lower paying jobs.   The EPI report found that “after adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage today—$7.25—is worth $2.00 less than in 1968, and is nowhere close to a living wage.”

Signe-Mary McKernan and Caroline Ratcliffe of the Urban Institute found that “the average wealth of white families was $230,000 higher than the average wealth of black and Hispanic families in 1983. This gap grew to over $500,000 by 2010.”

It was in this context that the march was held in Miami as a precursor for the main celebration of the important civil rights milestone in Washington, D.C. 

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson and others pointed out that there are still battles to fight to achieve true equality and justice in the United States.  “We still need to fight and get together.”

Melonie Burke, a representative for Edmonson’s colleague on the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners, Jean Monestime, echoed that sentiment.  “It doesn’t stop.”

State Senator Dwight Bullard made the drive up from his home district in South Dade to join the rally held in front of 93rd Street Community Baptist Church and offered contextual perspective.   “Let’s understand what we’re doing here.  We represent the manifestation of that dream so our commitment is to understand that our job is not done.”

Those comments about what Stafford referred to as a “dream deferred,” borrowing from poet Lorraine Hansberry, harkened back to the almost prophetic analysis of the 1963 march by Malcolm X.    In writing in his autobiography about the event and describing self-serving  individuals within the black community at the time (“the status seeker”) and the machinations of insincere whites in power at that time, X said somberly that “the black masses in America were--and still are--having a nightmare.”

This weekend in Washington, D.C. marks a second chance for the leaders and people of the United States to get it right and realize the dream made famous by Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

*To read the published version of this article as printed in the South Florida Times, please click on this urlink.

‘The Unsquarest Man’ – One Writer’s Homage to Albert Murray

‘The Unsquarest Man’ – One Writer’s Homage to Albert Murray

by José Pérez

“Memory believes before knowing remembers.”  ― William Faulkner, Light in August

Earlier this week, I learned that noted writer and accessible intellectual Albert Murray passed away in his home Harlem at the age of 97.

I remember Murray best for being patient with what I did not realize at the time was a rather impolite inquiry when I telephoned him at his home in 1999. I first heard of Murray after reading Dick Russell's book, Black Genius and, as an emerging writer, I wanted to reach out to the man credited with shaping the art of Ralph Ellison, whose novel, Invisible Man, made a huge impression on me. 

Mr. Murray was puzzled, almost annoyed that I called him out of the blue and not happy with the ease with which I found his number (in the white pages) but he must have sensed my true intentions and was very generous in offering feedback and advice in what turned into perhaps a thirty minute telephone conversation.

I remember being struck by one recommendation in particular that he gave to me: read William Faulkner.   Not knowing much about Murray, I was thought it unexpected that a black intellectual who was an eyewitness to some of the great milestones of the African-American 20th century would suggest that the work of the writer that created the fictional Yoknapatawpha County was a great primer for an aspiring writer.

O the things I had yet to learn about Albert Murray.

Murray was a jazz man with a blues background in musical aesthetics and his curiousity was perhaps matched by his ability to transmit what he so acutely observed and remembered.  A prized possession of mine is a book, a history of jazz, the printed accompaniment of Ken Burns’ 2000 documentary Jazz,  that uses Murray's descriptions and depictions of artists we now know as jazz legends as priceless insights into the excitement of being there when live music is born.   In the opening of that book, Murray says that live jazz is “the creative process incarnate.”    

I think that it is fitting that I was reminded of that just one day before he died while enjoying the music of vocalist Brenda Alford and other great artists at the Avocado Jazz Festival in South Dade.

An essayist, a fiction writer, and a poet, Murray also guided the shaping of the craft of the writer Stanley Crouch and musician Wynton Marsalis with whom he worked to establish Jazz at the Lincoln Center.

Born in rural Alabama and raised in Mobile by his adoptive parents, Murray’s excellence as a student there earned him admission to what was then the Tuskegee Institute in the late 1930’s.   There he met Ellison and the woman he would later marry, Mozelle Menefee.    It was at Tuskegee that Murray read works by authors such Faulkner, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and others.     

Murray, who is survived by his wife and their daughter, Michéle Murray, once wrote that “when the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues, he is fulfilling the same fundamental existential requirement that determines the mission of the poet, the priest and the medicine man.”

In his 1976 book, Stomping the Blues, Murray made the argument that the blues are the essential element to the music known around the world today as jazz.  His appreciation and respect for the blues as an art form was unwavering.    “The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people. It is the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people.”

Another of Murray’s protégés, the academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s famously said of Murray in a piece he penned for the New Yorker magazine that "This is Albert Murray's century, we just live in it."

The Real Tracy Fields, host of WLRN-FM’s “Evening Jazz” used a well-known description of Murray by Duke Ellington to pay tribute to the writer on her program’s social media page this week.  Ellington said that Murray was “the unsquarest man I know.”

Murray is one of the less visible of the United States' gifted minds and, perhaps now with his demise, he may become even less visible but as his protege Ellison showed us, an invisible man is still a man and a man is important.

Descansa en paz Maestro.

Albert Murray - 1916-2013

*To read the printed version of this obituary as published in the South Florida Times, please click on this urlink.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Wilson Mediates Dispute between Jessie Trice & FIU Over Clinic in Liberty City

Wilson Mediates Dispute between Jessie Trice & FIU Over Clinic in Liberty City
Story by José Pérez

A public health clinic currently under construction in Liberty City is at the heart of a struggle between one of South Florida’s oldest and most recognized community care clinics and Miami-Dade County’s public university.   Both Jessie Trice Community Health Center and Florida International University say that they each were promised use of the Liberty City Health Center and, less than a year before its scheduled opening in Spring of 2014, Congressperson Federica Wilson (D-FL) held a meeting in her Miami Gardens office this week to resolve the matter.

The impetus on the part of Wilson to facilitate the meeting, which included high-ranking representatives from Jessie Trice, FIU, the Florida Department of Health, the Health Foundation of South Florida, and the Model City CAC, was simple and urgent.    “We need to move forward with building the Liberty City Health Clinic,” said Wilson, to help the underserved and boost the economy.

At issue is who will control use of the Liberty City Health Center when it opens next year.

FIU said that it was told that it would be able to use the facility as part of teaching program it developed for its students.  Jessie Trice says that they were promised the continued use of a site they’ve served for over forty years by a resolution passed by the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners two years ago.

Wilson, who originally worked with local officials on the project when she was a State Senator, said that the idea all along had been that the Liberty City Health Clinic would be run by Jessie Trice. “It’s my understanding that Jessie Trice will head the clinic.”

Dr. Deborah George, Chief Medical Officer for Jessie Trice, said “I can’t imagine any reason why Jessie Trice would not be the clinical provider for Liberty City.”

Jessie Trice has a long history of service at the site in question.  From 1972 until the mid-2000’s, Jessie Trice operated out of the old Scott Center which sat adjacent to the present site for the Liberty City Health Center. 

Lillian Rivera, administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County, said the Health Department obtained the land from Miami-Dade County via County Commissioner Jean Monestime.  Rivera, who is in charge of supervising public health programs in Miami-Dade, said that the 10,000 square foot facility is already being built on county-owned lots just south of the Northside Metrorail Station in North Liberty City.  According to Rivera, there are two more parcels available that will be used for expansion of the site as funds become available.  

Stephen Sauls, Vice President, Office of Government Relations for FIU, was beginning to describe the history of FIU’s involvement with the project – including contacts with legislators in Tallahassee including State Senator Anitere Flores -when Rivera interrupted him to declare that “there was no intention to exclude Jessie Trice.”

Rivera repeatedly insisted that Jessie Trice was not supposed to be excluded, adding that the medical education component was at the heart of reaching out to FIU.   “I thought that bringing FIU was a good thing for the community,” said Rivera who supports the idea of extending the classroom into the community.  “The key is to test this model of training new physicians.”

Wilson questioned Rivera’s judgment in that instance.  Describing the decision to bring FIU into the discussion for the future of the Liberty City Health Center as “not a smart decision,” Wilson was not pleased.  “I don’t appreciate it.”

Sauls talked about the university’s intentions.  “Our focus has been to provide additional health care,” he said, via FIU’s NeighborhoodHELP program which is “a program that is ready to be replicated.” 

Wilson asked Dr. Joe Greer, Assistant Academic Dean of Academic Affairs for FIU and the man charged with the leadership of the NeighborhoodHELP program, if FIU was willing to work with Jessie Trice.     Greer avoided giving the Congressperson a direct answer but did say that FIU works with “over 100 community partners” as part of its work with “household-centered care.” 

“We work with anybody.”

Greer returned to the theme introduced by Sauls as to why FIU is interested in the Liberty City Health Clinic. “To make [NeighborhoodHELP] successful, this has to be tied into a clinic.”

Sauls indicated that success in Liberty City could bode well for FIU in the future hence the strong desire to “show that it’s a model that works so it can be replicated in other places.”

The question of who had preference for control of the health clinic still hung over the meeting.   For example, Sauls stated that the “site was offered to us” but did not specify by whom.   

For Wilson, the resolution by the Miami-Dade County Commission saying that clinic would be operated by Jessie Trice added credence to what she said was “the original plan”: to provide the health center for Jessie Trice.

“As far as I’m concerned, it belongs to Jessie Trice,” said Wilson who also said that “If FIU wants to work with Jessie Trice, fine [but] it has to be Jessie Trice leading.”

Sauls said he had “never heard of the resolution” which prompted Annie Neasman, CEO of Jessie Trice, and George to hold up copies of the resolution they brought with them to the crowded meeting.

Wilson announced the formation of a task force to resolve the issue as soon as possible.  “We’ll determine how we’ll operate the clinic and who does what,” she said.   Once the task force met, an official and perhaps conciliatory ground-breaking is to be scheduled for the site.  Still, the message from the Congressperson was very clear to all present: “We cannot and will not allow Jessie Trice to be left out.”

The taskforce meeting will be held on Wednesday, August 21 at noon at FIU.

*To read the published version of this article as printed in the South Florida Times, please click on this urlink.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Future of Florida’s Franchise Focus of Forum


Future of Florida’s Franchise Focus of Forum
Story by José Pérez

Late last month, State Representative Kionne McGhee (D-117) organized a panel discussion to talk about the recent Supreme Court ruling that effectively eviscerated the protections contained in the 1965 the Voting Rights Act as well as emerging voting legislation and right restoration for ex-offenders in Florida.    The discussion, which was open to the public and held at Martin Memorial AME Church in Richmond Heights, featured an all-star roster of panelists.

Late last month, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a key element in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the so-called “coverage formula,” was unconstitutional. That formula was used to determine which states required permission from the federal government before those states could enact changes to voting laws and/or procedures.  By essentially invalidating a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the high court has opened the proverbial door for states make changes to election laws with no clearance from Washington, D.C. needed.

The case against the Voting Rights Act was based on the argument that, because African-Americans are voting and holding office in record numbers including in the South, the landmark legislation  was no longer relevant. 

One prominent member of the High Court disagreed.  In an interview with the Associated Press, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said doing away with the VRA was "like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."

In his opening remarks, McGhee insisted that, according to the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “you cannot take away a person’s right to vote” but followed with a question.

“Is the 10th Amendment more important than the 15th Amendment?”   The 10th Amendment states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Thus, the question for McGhee, the panelists, and the approximately 40 people that were present in the pews of Martin Memorial centered on the validity of states in general and Florida in particular to enact voting laws that ran contrary to the wording and spirit of the 15th Amendment and its protections of suffrage for citizens.

The discussion began with historical perspective on the Voting Rights Act.    Howard Simon, Executive Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was “the heart and soul of what the Civil Rights Movement achieved.”

Simon drew attention to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which focused on states with a history of discrimination, virtually all of which are in the Southeastern United States, comprising what had once been the heart of the seditious Confederate States of America.  That section, Simon said, stipulated that no changes can be made to voting laws in those states without approval from the Department of Justice.   According to Simon, approximately 700 potentially discriminatory voting practices were blocked by the DOJ under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. 

With oppressive obstacles to voting such poll taxes and literacy tests removed under compulsion from the federal government, the VRA afforded many African-Americans and even poor whites the opportunity to cast ballots throughout the South.  “It literally changed the face of the South,” said Simon

The NAACP’s Bradford Brown, who along with Simon worked as an activist in Alabama over a half century ago, said that the 15th Amendment was essentially “voting rights enforcement.”

Donald Jones, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Miami’s law school, said that the judicial decision – split with a 5-4 decision among its Justices – was “backlash” from not just electing a Black man to be president of the United States but doing so twice. 

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling, some previously affected states acted on it.  Texas announced that it would move forward with executing a voter identification law that was passed in Austin in 2011 but was blocked by the Department of Justice.  Mississippi said that a similar law would go into effect in time for next summer’s primaries while leaders in North Carolina promised an expedited process with their own voter ID bill which was passed last week

In turn, the Department of Justice launched a legal counterattack with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowing to focus first on Texas utilizing elements of the Voting Rights Act left unchanged by the landmark decision.  Specifically, Holder is pinning his hopes on the belief that Section 3(c) can make up for what is no longer available to DOJ officials in Section 4(b).    Holder said the DOJ plans “to fully utilize the [Voting Rights Act’s] remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected."

The Attorney General is not alone in pursuing the 3(c) avenue in the Lone Star state.  In a suit filed last week in Texas, a group of Latino Texans argued that "because the State of Texas is no longer subject to the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act through the formula in Section 4(b), Section 3(c) relief is available against the State."  According the suit, "Section 3(c) relief is warranted in this case because existing evidence establishes intentional voting discrimination and other proceedings provide overwhelming evidence of constitutional violations in and by the State."

Not everyone, however, is supporting Holder’s moves.  "Attorney General Eric Holder proves he is more interested in political stunts than enforcing the law," said Horace Cooper, Co-Chair of Project 21, a conservative African-American think tank, in a written statement.

Maribel Balbin of the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County, added that “we were already under siege” in Florida before the Supreme Court’s decision, citing increasingly pitched political and legal battles between her organization and a Republican Party-controlled State Legislature.    For example, in 2011, the League of Women Voters sued to get a ten day extension to the existing voter registration period and the very morning of the panel discussion in Richmond Heights, the Florida Supreme Court sided with the League ruling that the Florida Legislature could not bypass trial in a legal fight over concerns of gerrymandering.

ThinkProgress reported that Florida’s on-again, off-again moves to purge voter rolls is officially back on track after a federal appeals court tossed out a suit in response to the Supreme Court's decision. According to AP, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced plans to restart the voter roll purge. This comes just two months after Florida Govenor Rick Scott signed a bill that brought back some early voting days which he advocated removing just a couple of years earlier.

The Palm Beach Post published a story last week in which Jim Greer, a former leading member of the Florida Republican Party said that those same voter purge initiatives were motivated more by fear of Democratic electoral victories than any concern over voting fraud. 

“The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates,” Greer said to The Post. “It’s done for one reason and one reason only: ‘We’ve got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us.’ ”

The Post also reported that a GOP campaign consultant, Wayne Bertsch, was aware of the same hidden agenda. “In the races I was involved in in 2008, when we started seeing the increase of turnout and the turnout operations that the Democrats were doing in early voting, it certainly sent a chill down our spines."

For Balbin, the remedy for the sudden lifting of protections against encroachments was simple. “We need strong federal standards.”

According to, hearings on developing a new formula to determine which areas should be subject to pre-clearance have been held in Congress but added that there is little optimism that anything will be enacted in the near future.

Given the profound worries conveyed by the speakers at the forum, Jones compared the Court’s decision in this matter to the Dred Scott case of the mid-19th century.   “This is a court that doesn’t remember our history,” he said.  “They have historical amnesia.”

Another problem discussed by the panel concerned the high number of Floridians are not allowed to vote.  “One out of every four African-American males in Florida are disenfranchised,” said Desmond Meade, a local activist and law student at Florida International University’s School of Law.   Why are so many Black men in Florida not allowed to vote?   Convicted felons in Florida lose the right to vote and, in this area, it ranks number one.  “Florida leads nation in disenfranchisement,” Meade said.

Felon disenfranchisement dates back to 1868 to uphold institution of white power in Tallahassee, added Simon.

The problem is huge, said panelists.  Meade reported that “1.5 million people in Florida are ‘returning citizens,’” using that strength-based term as an alternative to the more commonly-used “ex-felons.”

Most returning citizens are disenfranchised for non-violent offenses (such as trapping an under-sized lobster, disturbing a sea turtle’s nest, et cetera). When they are released from prison, returning citizens in Florida cannot vote, cannot run for office, and, in the case of Meade who is himself a returning citizen, cannot sit for the state bar examination.

While it is possible for a disenfranchised Floridian to have his or her rights restored, it is a daunting and often fruitless process.  Typically, a returning citizen must wait between 5 to 7 years before he can apply to have his or her rights restored.  The application process can take up to six years and, according to Meade, less than 1% actually succeed in having those rights restored.  “You might as well be a slave,” lamented Meade, a sentiment echoed by attorney Christopher Benjamin who also served on the panel.

For many Floridians, that amounts - essentially – to a lifetime disenfranchisement which Simon called the “biggest voting scandal in the country.”

Christina White, Acting Chief Deputy Supervisor of Elections for Miami-Dade County, brought voter registration forms as well as forms with which voters could update the signature they have on record with the Elections Department.  This is important because in order for an absentee ballot submitted to be valid, the signature on the ballot must match the signature on record with the Elections Department.

Voter turnout for local elections is usually only between 20-30%, said White.

White also talked about HB7013, the Election Reform Bill of 2013 which expands sites that can be used for voting.  The Bill also gives local elections supervisors the power to expand early voting days up to 14 days (including the Sunday before an election) at their discretion.

Simon, however, has his doubts.  “Your right to vote will depend on which county you live in.”  He also pointed out that most of the Black voters that cast their ballot for Barack Obama voted early.

That local aspect to the evening’s discussion was a recurring theme.  “A lot of these problems,” pointed out Simon, “are local problems that we can address.”   It was because of that that some in attendance were doubly-concerned.  “We are in an area where [these issues are] predominant,” said Jerry Alleyne-Nagee of Perrine. “There are a host of people that are suffering but I do not see this room packed up”  

For perspective, Meade highlighted the fact that it only took a few million people to get Governor Rick Scott elected in 2010 (2.6 million) and President Obama reelected in 2012 (4.2 million). 

*To read the print version of this article, please click on this urlink.