Rosemary Fuller and Patricia “Pat” Mellerson have emerged from relative obscurity in a semi-rural area of Miami-Dade County to become respected examples of effective community leadership.
After taking offense at members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) dressed in their uniforms and carrying their flags in the 2008 Veterans Day parade in Homestead, the women began an effort that not only led to a ban on Confederate flags in the parade, but also helped topple an administration.
Supporters of the Confederate flag say it is a symbol of southern pride. Many in the black community say it is a reminder of slavery, lynching and segregation.
Mellerson and Fuller were raised during the Civil Rights era. Each can recall horrendous accounts of racism during that time. They say the Confederate flag conjures up memories of that tumultuous period.
For example, Mellerson said, while she was growing up in northern Florida, the Ku Klux Klan marched through town. She remembered when a cross was burned on her front lawn, a clear symbol of racism. That was after she bought a home in the Falls area of Miami-Dade County in the 1970s.
When Fuller’s house was under construction in 1973, someone painted racial slurs on it, and burned a cross on the property. About a year later, once the house was completed, someone fired a shotgun through the front door, she said.
Fuller, 61, has retired from the Miami-Dade County school system as an educator and school principal. She is a housewife, mother and grandmother whose family owns several properties and operates vegetable farms in the Homestead/Florida City area.
Mellerson is a 68-year-old Realtor and business owner. A divorced mother of one son who is deceased, she owns and manages her modest real-estate holdings, including the popular Pioneer Mall in the historic district of Homestead.
FROM RIDICULE TO RESPECT
A year ago, the women were being publicly ridiculed at city council meetings, and were insulted on blogs for their positions against the Confederate flag.
Today, the women spend a considerable amount of time answering their phones: First, it’s a mayor, next a church pastor, and later, a resident.
Mellerson and Fuller are the unheralded, if not reluctant, civic leaders who just a year ago were unknown, going about their daily tasks.
Today, elected officials seek them out for insight on issues, civic activists want their advice on social matters, and business leaders want to know what they think about future projects.
The list of people seeking advice has grown so long that some of them must schedule appointments with the ladies.
“I’m just a person trying to make things better for my community. I do not think that I have to be a leader to do that,” Fuller said.
“I like to think I am a part of the people; all the people,” she said. “I like to get things done and remain out of the spotlight.”
Through it all, they never sought publicity for themselves, always attributing credit to others.
They recognized an issue, organized supporters, and initiated the fight to a successful conclusion, something few politicians can boast.
DETERMINED TO SUCCEED
For a time, Fuller and Mellerson served as chair and vice chair, respectively, on the joint Homestead/Florida City Human Relations Board (HRB); an advisory board that worked to resolve community concerns in both cities.
They organized meetings before the Homestead City Council, attempting to get the city to cut its in-kind support for the parade, unless the organizers banned Confederate groups and their flags.
The city council reacted by voting 6-to-1 to dissolve the board, which effectively stripped the women of their titles. Some apparently believed this would stop them from bringing attention to the issue.
It did not.
The women enlisted the help of the U.S. Department of Justice, which attempted to mediate the controversy. The threat of an economic boycott from the NAACP brought additional attention. The collaboration led to the first civil rights rally ever on the steps of Homestead city hall.
The women also convinced leaders in neighboring Florida City to threaten an end to that city’s decades-long membership in, and association with, the Greater Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce, whose Military Affairs Committee organized the parade.
After Fuller and Mellerson met with school officials, local schools withdrew from the parade, as did other organizations.
The Military Affairs Committee eventually canceled the parade altogether after the controversy erupted, ending their 47-year tradition.
Hispanic groups, chur-ches and other organizations joined the cause.
Four of the six Homestead council members who opposed the women’s efforts were up for re-election, and several other candidates aligned themselves with the movement Fuller and Mellerson spurred.
The election came about a week before Veterans Day. Fuller and Mellerson volunteered on the campaigns of some of their opponents. Most of the incumbents ran as a team, and the flag controversy was a key issue.
In stunning upsets, Mayor Lynda Bell and council members Melvin McCormick, Nazy Sierra and Tim Nelson fell to crushing defeat.
Councilwoman Judy Waldman, a frequent Bell critic who openly expressed opposition to the Confederate flag and sought city action to address it, was the only incumbent to win re-election.
As for the parade, another group, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, took over, reinstated the event, and banned Confederate groups and their flags.
The parade went off without a hitch. Dressed in patriotic clothing, Fuller and Mellerson stood victoriously by the roadside, waving American flags and shouting compliments at people in passing floats.
A short distance away, four members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans displayed their flag, and gathered on a sidewalk to watch. Their ban from participating in the parade was a direct result of the women’s efforts.
As Fuller and Mellerson watched the Nov. 11 parade, newly elected council members rode by in convertibles. Some waved; others shouted thanks to them.
It was a gesture befitting two people who spurred a movement, brought change to a 47-year-old event, and awakened a community.
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Patricia “Pat” Mellerson, left, and Rosemary Fuller, right.