For the past three years, serious questions have lingered in the black community at large about Mayor Alvin Brown's commitment to his base. It was the black community that turned out in excess of 90 percent in 2011. That point proved crucial in Brown's election. Great hopes and expectations were raised with Brown's inauguration. But actions speak louder than words, and the mayor's actions have spoken volumes about his gratitude for winning an election with a margin of only 1,500 votes.
On July 2, 2014, the mayor's Human Rights Commission conducted the Jacksonville observation of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Mayor Brown joined other keynote speakers, including U.S. District Judge Brian J. Davis, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland, among other leaders. The program featured Al Letson, psalmist Cheryl Harris and the presentation of awards to members of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP.
But it was the exclusion of other Civil Rights organizations from the city's celebration that caused the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, political leaders, citizens and all concerned to question this hallmark and historical event. The outrage and outcry about the mayor's Civil Rights celebration was loud, vast and inclusive. Some of these voices of protest, as posted on SCLC's Facebook page and other Internet sites, are shared here:
• Hazel Gillis, Duval County Democratic Black Caucus president: "The Duval County Democratic Black Caucus is also concerned that Dr. Martin Luther King's SCLC was not included in the program. We are also disappointed in the short notice given for the program."
• Dennis Wade, past member of Jacksonville Human Rights Commission: "The Human Rights Commission most likely prepared this event and presented it to the mayor for approval. And when you have an African-American mayor, an African-American JHRC chairwoman and an African-American JHRC executive director, the omission of the SCLC, Dr. King's organization, from the program does not appear to be an oversight."
• Constance McCrary-House, citizen: "That's so sad. SMH. You can't celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act without memorializing the efforts of MLK and SCLC. They were the core of the Civil Rights struggle."
• Sandra Dabney, citizen: "Mayor Brown has really disappointed me. I wonder if he is a sheep in wolves [sic] clothing."
• Renee Ward, citizen: "A sin and a shame."
• Glorious Johnson, past City Councilmember: "Can someone please tell me what Jerry Holland has done for the Civil Rights Movement? Have I missed something?"
The comments from City Councilman William Gulliford summarized all the points above: "It is a travesty and I am an old white guy. I can only imagine how incensed you are and others feel. I think this is very poor planning, and additionally, not very inclusive for a celebration that is supposed to recognize the importance of inclusion."
The city's Human Rights Commission executive director, Charlene Taylor Hill, wrote in response to the SCLC's complaints that the event was "not intended to be exclusive, as the commission is aware that many others have made contributions since the 1960s." She added, "Over the next few months, there will be several opportunities to recognize past accomplishments and to elevate the discussion in a meaningful way on resolving Civil Rights issues that are still before us."
My response to her letter read: "This program falls in line with the actions witnessed by all in the following city programs: Northwest Trust Fund situation, river taxi situation, moving the Gateway Supervisor of Elections office and the expiration of license agreement situation, just to name a few. The culmination of all strongly suggest that some directors and City Hall officials are comatose at the switch of leadership."
The executive director stated that she wanted to elevate "the discussion in a meaningful way on resolving Civil Rights issues that are still before us." Some in our community sincerely believe that the HRC is a true obstacle to obtaining civil rights in Jacksonville. The real fact of the matter, and the honest truth about civil rights in Jacksonville, is this: It has a long and dismal story of constant struggle. The Brotherhood of Firefighters and Minority Contractors is presently in federal court seeking a judgment for years of racial and economic injustice inflicted by the city. Far too many cases cannot get past the HRC, which grants the approval for legal standing to commence a constitutional fight against sexual harassment, racial and economic injustice. The dark cloud of racial and civil injustice and indifference is still present in Jacksonville today. We are surpassing the point of discussion, as stated by the executive director of the HRC. We must reconcile the economic and civil rights of our city now. The HRC is invited to join SCLC and the other civil rights organizations that are engaged today in Jacksonville, creating the actions for reconciliation in the areas of racial and economic injustice and violence that exist here.
Mayor Alvin Brown's administration has a supreme opportunity to do as Dr. King said: "Transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." This can only be accomplished by Brown providing strong, decisive political leadership, which includes clear, specific legislative action. This is not what we have today.
Mayor Brown and the City Council are creating the present history of civil rights. There is currently a need for more minority supervisors in the 1,300-member fire department. That situation will get worse in the next two years, when the 1988 class of firefighters retires. Implementing the recommendations of the city's task force on consolidation would be a great step forward. Reconciliatory leadership between the mayor and the City Council is necessary. The mayor and the council must forge a partnership to reverse the past institutional injustice that is embedded in our city. Together they must plot a positive path of civil and economic progress on which our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren can build a future in which economic and civil justice exist for all.
This city's human rights celebration was not inclusive. Pastor R.L. Gundy provided the most profound and sobering evaluation of Jacksonville's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by calling it "blatant disrespect." We can and must do better. The city's future is in our hands.
UPDATE: This op-ed originally referred to the Human Rights Commission as “the mayor’s Human Rights Commission.” To clarify, HRC members are appointed by the mayor, but have to be confirmed by the City Council.
Also, in response to a similar op-ed Juan Gray published in the Times-Union yesterday, the paper ran a response from Isaiah Brumlin, head of the Jacksonville chapter of the NAACP, who does not share Gray’s assessment of the situation. A portion of that response is excerpted below:
I was surprised and disappointed to see that The Florida Times-Union has decided to print a misleading column from Juan Gray that falsely claims that Mayor Alvin Brown snubbed King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the July 2 Jacksonville Human Rights Commission celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
For many reasons, that criticism is baseless.
First, Gray makes the absurd charge that the “Brown administration” snubbed Martin Luther King Jr.
That allegation is insulting.
Anyone who attended the event knows that King’s historic leadership was highlighted.
And please recall that it was Brown who hosted King’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, in Jacksonville just two years ago.
Second, Gray knows full well that the organization is the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, and it existed long before the mayor took office.
In fact, as Commissioner Michael Wachholz states on the commission’s website, “The commission has been an integral part of the Jacksonville community for over 40 years, helping to eliminate discrimination in all aspects of life.”
Commission board members, who must be approved by the City Council, are required under city law to be “broadly representative of the various social, economic, religious, cultural, ethnic and racial groups which comprise the population of the city.”
The City Council must also approve the commission’s executive director.
Third, Gray labels the July 2 event as “the mayor’s Civil Rights celebration.”
Again, that label is false.
The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act was planned by the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission.
Like U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, U.S. District Judge Brian Davis and other dignitaries, the mayor’s role at the event was as an invited speaker.
He did not plan the event or decide who would be part of the program.