With attorney F. Malcolm Cunningham, left, as keynote speaker, the Black Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County’s 12th Annual Ascension Awards celebrated excellence among business and nonprofit leaders, such as Dicky Sykes Social Justice Advocate winner Alexcia Cox, right, and Palm Beach Post Executive Editor Rick Christie, above, whose team won the chamber President’s Award. Conflict between West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James, however, and another longtime local African American heavyweight, Cunningham, has the Black Chamber in the breach. See award winners Page 4B. C.B. HANIF PHOTOS / SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES

West Palm Beach, Fla. – Veteran attorney F. Malcolm Cunningham Jr. offered historical perspective on the travails of Black businesses in Palm Beach County – and fresh perspective on the conflict between himself and another longtime local African American heavyweight, West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James – while serving as keynoter for the county Black Chamber of Commerce’s 12th Annual Ascension Awards at the Palm Beach County Convention Center on Saturday.

After congratulating the finalists – “You are all winners” – Cunningham concluded, “Where in these United States, have you seen a Black mayor, boycott a Black Chamber event, because the speaker, a Black lawyer, succeeded in helping a Black business, whose Black business was wrongly disqualified, by the mayor and city, from managing a city owned asset, located in an historical Black Community? Have you heard of that before? … We have work to do. Entrepreneurs prepare for battle. Lower the guns! And grab those red coats.”

Without mentioning anyone by name, Cunningham’s obvious reference was to what Joel Engelhardt of the online stetnews.org site had reported days earlier:

“The city canceled its $17,000 sponsorship, which included two tables, for the Black Chamber of Commerce’s Feb. 10 Ascension Awards when James learned that F. Malcolm Cunningham Jr. would be the keynote speaker.”

Most in the audience likely were oblivious to the article’s reporting that Cunningham had filed the mayor’s email exchange Jan. 12 in court documents to buttress his case to find the city in contempt for failing to negotiate a contract with his client, the African American-owned Vita company, “nearly a year after a court ordered the city to do so.”

The skirmish that continues to leave the refurbished Sunset shuttered in the city’s historic Black downtown neighborhood also has elevated to a costly spat for the chamber.

Last year, Stet reported, the chamber board had agreed “to rescind an invitation to Cunningham at the city’s request but refused to back down again this year, no matter how big the sponsor.

“They figured the lawsuit was still fresh then and certainly would be over by 2024. But the city’s refusal to negotiate with club operators Vita Lounge, despite the court order, leaves the suit very much alive.”

Diane G. Papadakos, the city’s director of communications and public information officer, said Tuesday that given the ongoing negotiations she could not discuss the status of the Sunset Lounge’s reopening. She released a statement, however, saying, “The City of West Palm Beach, at the direction of the Mayor, withdrew its sponsorship after learning that Mr. Cunningham was the keynote speaker. While the Chamber has the right to choose its keynote speaker, the Mayor, as the CEO of the City of West Palm Beach (which has been the Chamber’s largest financial supporter during his administration), has the right to cause the City to sponsor or not sponsor a particular Chamber event.

“It should also be noted that under Mayor Keith A. James’ administration, the City has provided more direct funding (over $400,000 in grants to black owned businesses in just this fiscal year alone) and indirect training and education to black owned businesses than any other public or private entity in Palm Beach County.

“The propriety of the Mayor’s decision to withhold the City’s sponsorship of this Chamber event was confirmed by Mr. Cunningham’s remarks during his address, when, after making several harshly critical remarks about the Mayor, he stated, “Entrepreneurs prepare for battle; lower the guns.” This is reckless and dangerous rhetoric in these politically charged times. The question for Mr. Cunningham is with whom the entrepreneurs are to do battle, and at whom are they to lower the guns?” From the beginning, however, Cunningham’s comments were in the context of Black entrepreneurs having constantly been in the breech of an interminable battle for a fairer share of city and county business.

He recounted an old tale that might West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James be interpreted as a commander asking for his red jacket to hide his wounds in a battle he expected to win, and his brown pants for a battle he expected to lose, presumably to hide his soiled pants.

Between quips about brown pants and pickled pigfeet, Cunningham cited from institutional memory the history of efforts to organize and maximize the clout of local African American business chambers, starting with the former Suncoast Chamber of Commerce, the former Black chamber of which most current chamber members likely are not aware.

West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County [to] are undergoing a transformation, Cunningham, said, and “We have make sure our chamber” has red coats ready to join the fight.

“Like the Suncoast Chamber,” added Cunningham, “we need a political action committee. It only makes sense, that we should support those, who support us.”

The mayor’s office heard his comments differently. That backstory overshadowed another slate of honorees of excellence.

Alexcia Cox, for example, earned the chamber’s Social Justice Advocate Award, named for Dicky Sykes, the beloved late advocate, mentor and giant in the arena of helping provide business growth opportunities. Cox is a highly regarded Palm Beach County native who serves as deputy chief assistant state attorney for the county State Attorney’s Office and is running for the top job. Cox humbly recounted her personal history, and confidently spoke of making history in the elections soon, saying “Let’s do this!” Among many other heights of the night was Chamber President Joseph Sanches’ recognition of Palm Beach Post Executive Editor Rick Christie and his team with the President’s Award.

Meanwhile, the Sunset still sits.