Special to South Florida Times
MIAMI — On a quiet downtown street, nestled behind a clump of trees that shade the historic City of Miami Cemetery, a worn cement parking lot leads to a building that, in the heat and stillness of a spring afternoon, seems derelict.
But it is not.
Inside the spacious building, all is quiet, but the flyers and posters that decorate the walls are evidence that every so often the building comes to life when the members of P.U.L.S.E. — People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality — get together to rally for a cause.
Four binders filled with newspaper clippings dating back to 1980 tell the story of the civil rights organization formed by local African-American civic leaders and clergy members three decades ago in response to the riots that griped Miami’s black community at the time. The articles chronicle the work of P.U.L.S.E., which focuses on helping the disenfranchised black community of Miami-Dade County find its voice.
P.U.L.S.E. strives to help those who are “denied the rights and privileges others receive every day,” said Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director since 1992. “When you have your average Joes getting beat down by the police, their only weapons are rocks and beer bottles. P.U.L.S.E. is here to help them deal with that in a way that won’t destroy the community.”
On Saturday, P.U.L.S.E. will hold its 31st annual convention at Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church, 5946 N.W. 12th Ave., Miami, on the theme, “People United to Save Our Youth.” The gathering will address issues such as youth empowerment, quality education and neighborhood issues.
Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church is one of 42 civic and church groups in the P.U.L.S.E. network. In total, P.U.L.S.E. comprises 30 Baptist churches, two Presbyterian churches, two Holiness-Pentecostal churches, two United Methodist churches, one African Methodist Episcopal church and a handful of civic groups, including the American Postal Workers Union and Concerned Seniors.
Back in 1980, Jordan Grove was one of the first churches that helped launch P.U.L.S.E., according to the Rev. Douglas Cook, who has been its pastor for three decades.
Cook said in an interview with South Florida Times that he was approached by a man interested in organizing a civil rights group with Miami’s black churches shortly after Arthur McDuffie’s funeral was held at the church in December 1979.
At the time, Miami was being rocked by violent protests over the acquittal of five white police officers charged in the beating death of McDuffie, an insurance salesman, during a traffic stop that same month.
The McDuffie case seemed indicative of broader issues plaguing the black community, such as high unemployment, poverty, poor quality schools, police brutality and lack of political representation in city and county government. Cook and the other pastors and civic leaders wanted to create an organization that could empower poor and working-class blacks and offer an alternative to rioting.
“The black community wasn’t getting its fair share of things,” Cook said. Through P.U.L.S.E. “we could at least bring attention to our problems.”
The organization started taking up a variety of causes in its early days. Cook recalled one time in the early 1980s when P.U.L.S.E. responded to complaints about soaring electric bills by visiting Florida Power & Light. When their questions about the high bills
went unanswered, several P.U.L.S.E. members registered their dissatisfaction by paying in an unusual way. “We paid with pennies and held up the line,” Cook said.
The spirit of protest still holds true at P.U.L.S.E. three decades later as the organization continues to fight racism and inequality on behalf of black Miamians.
“People assume we’ll go away but we don’t,” Wilcox said. “We have longevity.”
Before the organization rallies around a cause, it does exhaustive research according to P.U.L.S.E. volunteer Maria Wimberly.
With a 98 percent success rate stretching back to 1992, “maintaining our integrity is important to us,” Wimberly said. “When we go public with an issue, we make sure all of our i’s are dotted and our t’s are crossed.”
When a person approaches P.U.L.S.E. with a complaint concerning racism in the workplace or police brutality, for example, they are asked to fill out a form that is later reviewed by a committee and the P.U.L.S.E. board to determine if the case does involve a civil rights violation, Wimberly and Wilcox explained.
If it does not, the case is turned down, Wilcox said.
In the span of a few minutes, Wilcox and Wimberly can easily discuss several ongoing issues of racism and civil rights that P.U.L.S.E.
is currently investigating, which is reflective of the multitude of cases and issues the organization has tackled over the years.
There’s the Hialeah Police Department case that dates back to the early 1990s when a few black officers asked P.U.L.S.E. to investigate the agency’s hiring and promotions policies. P.U.L.S.E. got involved and, today, Hialeah has black officers in high-ranking positions, according to Wilcox.
They described several cases of police brutality where suspects have been left to “bleed out” and die before police called paramedics to the crime scene.
“Good police officers will not allow bad police officers to tarnish their name,” Wilcox said. “We’ve had a lot of good officers come to us wanting those bad officers to be held accountable for their actions.”
Wilcox and Wimberly talked about P.U.L.S.E.’s vocal push for redistricting in an effort to get more African Americans in county and city government over the years.
“We can’t sit under a tree and complain,” Wilcox said. “Change has happened because we organize. Once we get involved in an issue, we don’t give up.”
Miami is a much different city than it was 31 years ago. Even though more African Americans have climbed the corporate ladder during the past three decades and many youths are working harder in school now than in past years, the black community is still plagued by several issues that linger on.
“Racism has gotten very sophisticated,” Wimberly said. “It’s more strategic.”
Wilcox agreed. “In some areas, things are improving,” he said. “In other areas, things don’t change.”
Cook said that, during its 31-year history, P.U.L.S.E. has not only encouraged the black community to stand up for its “fair share” and equal rights but it has also tried to empower the community to embrace a nonviolent attitude that encourages acceptance, diversity, and brotherhood.
“We do our best to do it right,” Cook said. “Violence is not the way. We need to love one another and talk it out and agree on an issue. That’s the best way to make it better for all sides.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: 31st annual convention of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality
WHEN: 9 a.m., Saturday, May 19
WHERE: Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church, 5946 NW 12th Ave., Miami
CONTACT: Nathaniel Wilcox, 305-576-7590.
Photo: Nathaniel J. Wilcox