Black History Month

Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights activist. Youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner. Organizer. Preacher. Marcher. All in the name of people. He is formally recognized every third Monday in January. This year that day was Jan. 20.

When I asked key people in the South Florida black community to help me identify men who they thought emulated the Martin Luther King Jr. spirit, I was impressed with the response.

“I have looked at that criteria,” wrote 1st Vice President of NAACP Brad Brown, and he forwarded this answer: “Dr. King always spoke a prophetic voice, calling out injustices and speaking truth to power with regards to addressing racism; Dr. King built and used organizations, recognizing that one person does not accomplish much alone; Dr.  King was willing to take positions that brought him criticism and disparagement, not just with whites, but within the black community.”

After that he wrote, two names.

Others pointed to specific “King-like actions taken by men whom they chose: organizing boycotts, being the “first black” in a school or a job; or a life-long commitment to community service.

It was indeed magnificent to see so many deserving names mentioned, more than I would have space in which to do justice. So we culled the list by county, choosing someone from each who, not only represented all those mentioned, but also represented the enormous accomplishments of King.

I looked at their varied backgrounds: one came from law; another from the arts; another from community service; and one who preaches but also plays a role in the economic condition of the people in his county – all areas in which MLK made a mark or died while trying.

Men of South Florida, continue the push for unity, for the best education for our children, for ways to economically empower those who are disenfranchised, and for ways to chronicle our history. Men of South Florida: Stand up and be counted Kings of King.

Kings of King

R. Joaquin Willis

rev._joaquin_willis_3.jpgThink back to King’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. He organized the campaign but did not live to see it through.

Still the campaign went on, with about 3,000 people setting up a tent city on the Lincoln Mall, asking Congress to address poverty and provide economic justice. Fast-forward to 1995, when Rev. Joseph Lowry, of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, Rev. R. Joaquin Willis and other pastors realized that, as a group, churches all over the country were depositing millions of dollars in banks, especially on a Monday. 

Willis, who is best known as pastor of Church of the Open Door UCC since 2002, serves as president and CEO of The Collective Empowerment Group of South Florida Inc. (CEG), a group of churches that successfully negotiate with banks to reinvest in the communities from which they get significant deposits.

“We made note of the ones who were willing to reinvest in our community and the ones who were willing to make loans,” Willis said.

Following the Great Recession, which started in 2008, the group was able to negotiate some foreclosure prevention and loan modifications. Overtime, it has negotiated business, home and church loans in the community. Now it is getting involved in renovating and developing housing.

Willis, who considers himself a student of King, said he thinks if King were alive he would still be fighting for economic justice for all poor. He grew up in Alabama and was able to learn a lot from Lowry, who was a close ally of King.

“The Montgomery boycott was about economic justice. It got black people to stop taking the bus for 381 days,” said Willis. “We have been marching a lot but what we need now are strategic plans.” 

W. George Allen

w.-george-allen-1.jpgA career choice that came after a role in a school play is what made Attorney W. George Allen the man he is today. Allen had his sights set on becoming a physician but acted as a lawyer in the play and a new love was born.

Allen went on to earn a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Florida.

As the first African-American to graduate, he opened the door and paved the way for all black graduates who followed.  While that first is a major accomplishment, it is not why Allen is viewed as someone who followed in the footsteps of King.

Allen got involved with social activism when he organized lunch counter sit-ins in and around Gainesville. After receiving his law degree, Allen filed a suit that led to the integration of Broward County’s public accommodations and public school system, according to a HistoryMakers’ biography.

To hear more about Allen’s life in segregated Sanford and his journey to have a successful law practice for 50 years.

Clayton Lopez

clayton_lopez.jpgTry to remember what you were doing when you were 13 years old. At 13, Clayton Lopez helped organize and participate in a march against a segregated skating rink in Key West.

That started his journey to serve the community in which he was born and raised. By age 17, he was the youngest member of a team that helped secure funding to restore the Community Pool, now named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He was still in high school when he received his first gubernatorial appointment. Governor Ruben Askew appointed him to a committee of community leaders, students and educators that helped end the riots of 1972, according to a statement.

He believed in equal rights for everyone, a standard sought by King. In the 1990s, when some local ministers denied gay participation in the Christmas parade, he was one of several members, including his wife who marched in that same Christmas parade in protest.

The community he serves as county commissioner has bestowed many honors, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award. He, like King, is a man of faith.

Florida Keys Community College President Jonathan Gueverra said of Lopez: “Clayton is a true community servant, leader and advocate.  His spirit and passion for the people of Key West have fueled many endeavors that have improved the community in a multitude of ways for generations to come to enjoy.” 

James Drayton

james_drayton_web.jpgJames Drayton is known in the Palm Beach County community as the founder of the annual African-American Film Festival at the Kravis Center, now in its ninth year.

He may even be known for previously owning the African American Heritage Bookstore in West Palm Beach. He should be known for forming in 2007 Together We Stand Democratic Club of Palm Beach. What you may not know about Drayton is that in the 1970s he served as president of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The center, located in Harlem and is a part of the New York Public Library System, is a repository of  the African Diaspora art and artifacts.

The center, which used to be called The Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints opened in 1925 as a special collection of the 135th Street Branch library. In 1940, the Division was renamed the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History and Prints in honor of its founder.

In 1972, the Schomburg Collection was designated as one of the research libraries of The New York Public Library and became the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

So, in essence, Drayton oversaw the chronicling of black history, when he served as president for three years.

“Why that’s terribly nice. I am so pleased and grateful,” said Drayton, when told he had been selected as someone who emulates King’s vision for blacks in America and the world. “I am probably undeserving but I will take it anyway. I have begun a number of activities and breathe life into a few organizations in the African-American community to raise the level of consciousness and accomplishments of black folks.”