Friday, August 23, 2013

A Cuban American in ML King’s Court

Reflecting on the up-coming 50 year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  famous “I have a dream” speech, I could not help but feel extremely blessed for having crossed path with greatness through my years. While growing up in Atlanta, both personally and professionally, the happenstance incidents of intersecting with African-American heroes – and common folks – has shaped my life and core values in countless ways… (I thought I’d begin writing these down before I start forgetting them. I am sure that some of the stories are embellished with the inevitable influence of the passage of time. I hope I am dong them justice still.)

Most momentous among these was when, as a young architect (circa 1982), I was asked to do the architectural model for the concept of the African American Experience Museum. Dan Moore, the dreamer of the idea, worked with me to produce the concept: An interactive place where you would ‘feel’ the experience of ‘being there’ at some of history’s most precious moments during the Civil Rights era. The unveiling of the model brought together “Daddy” King, Coretta Scott King, MLK III, Andrew Young, Hank Aaron – and me. I was simply overwhelmed when asked to sign the same scroll that these giants signed… I’d like to think that scroll is probably somewhere in the APEX museum today.

I had the honor of serving under Mayor Andrew Young as a housing and community development planner.  His Chief of Staff at that time was Shirley Franklin, who went on to become Mayor herself. Mayor Young’s term followed the tenure of Atlanta’s first African-American Mayor, Maynard Jackson. (The Atlanta airport was eventually renamed ‘Hartsfield- Jackson’ in his honor.)  One of my most memorable moments was being in the Mayor’s office discussing the housing issues in Atlanta. Shirley Franklin, ever the consummate strategists; Mayor Young, ever the consummate visionary; and, Maynard Jackson (who came back for a third term after Young), ever the detailed expert. Indeed, it was so amazing to see Maynard Jackson bring his housing finance expertise (from his Chicago days) to specific issues.  He knew more about the ‘fine art’ of housing finance than anyone else I’ve ever encountered in my 30 years working in the field.

Before joining the City, I had the pleasure of interacting with then Atlanta Councilmember (now Congressman) John Lewis as we worked with inner-city communities through the Community Design Center of Atlanta… Let’s just say that his wisdom in ‘little things’ was simply prophetic even back then… His projection of love – yes love – in contentious community settings was such a refreshing approach to community building!

And then there was Hosea Williams.  (For folks not from the ATL, let’s just say that Rev. Williams is a pillar of greatness when it comes to helping the poor – and a ruckus example of what an imperfect elected official can be.)  Rev. Williams’ commitment to serving the poor is now famous, especially during the holiday season.  But, back then, it was not pretty. Finding the right location to serve the ever increasing number of people; securing the permit in time when – let’s just say that – his ‘organizational’ skills were not the greatest… And then there were his personality traits that unfortunately got him into trouble… Oh, that special like for libations!... Yet: even in with these personal challenges, his commitment to feed the poor was contagious… We miss him dearly!

As I ‘grew’ professionally, I had the opportunity to go through the Leadership Atlanta program.  One of the most wrenching sessions that will forever stay with me was the session given by Civil Rights Great C.T. Vivian.  He was simply mesmerizing.  His ‘in-your-face’ approach to ‘speaking truth to power’ and ‘telling it like it is’ was so very powerful that it is a fundamental influence to my value system with regards to race to this day… I wonder if he could be that blunt in our hyper-sensitive politically correct world today… (I may have to ask his son, who is my Facebook friend…)

… But, it is not only the ‘famous’ African-Americans that have shaped my life’s value system. It is also the countless ‘average folks’ I’ve had the pleasure of crossing path with over my lifetime… Some of these also merit a ‘shout out’:

There’s Glen (I believe that’s his name):  The only classmate that invited me to a ‘conversation’ when I arrived in Griffin, Georgia (30 miles south of Atlanta) in 1968. (Yep, THAT ’68!) I spoke no English. White students would have none of me. When I walked into the lunchroom, Glen – an African-American student - signaled for me to come over and sit with him. We had a great lunch and became good friends… But, it was not easy. After that lunch the Spanish teacher took me to the Principal to tell me that I could not sit with ‘those kind’ during lunch… I did not understand why; he was my friend!  The Principal explained to me why. If I wanted to survive in the school, I had to be a racist… Those were tough times.

We then moved on up to Hampton, Georgia, home of the famous Atlanta Raceway (and home of Gladys Knights and the Pips!)  I would commute to Henry County High School, starting there soon after it integrated. There were racial walk-outs; fights; rumblings; and all of that stuff… No matter: In my senior year I decided to run for Vice-President with my African-American friend on the ticket as President… We ran under the slogan of “Vote for A Cuban and an African”… Then, when graduation time came, we had a party at my house – in ‘lilly-white Lake Talmadge’…  Suffice it to say that having a house full of African-American friends back then was not exactly received well by the neighbors.

Stone Mountain, Georgia.  Birth home of the KKK. The mountain that has enshrined Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.  We ended up moving nearby (Tucker) and having many family gatherings there, watching the laser show highlight how the War of Northern Aggression was not about slavery, but about State rights. Yea, right… If there’s any doubt that God has a sense of humor, Stone Mountain today is one of the most popular sites for African-American family reunions!

So many experiences through the years!... Working with Joe Lewis and The Community in Atlanta’s West End in the 70’s, meeting at the Shrine of the Black Madonna  where I bought “Deep is the Hunger” by Howard Thurman; Working with Rudy Bryant from the Pratt Institute back in the 80’s  to develop a national “Leadership Development Network”; providing technical assistance to the executive directors of the Miami and New Orleans Neighborhood Housing Service - both strong African-American women - in the 90’s; helping to get elected African-American councilmembers in  areas as diverse as Green County, Mississippi and Oakland, California (Robert Jackson and Lynette Gibson McElhaney); and working in the Delta (“David Duke” country) with Winnie Stoney of (back then) Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation at a time when a Latino and an African-American women being seen together was not exactly ok…

And the story continues today. Learning from co-workers like Tony Austin (R.I.P.) and Mark Robinson in NeighborWorks America; building community with Ronnie Galvin in Montgomery County; and, sharing stories with story-teller David Hunt…

All of this exposure to greatness has shaped my deep appreciation of the African-American experience, and my personal commitment to continue learning from that experience.  I feel truly blessed with – in one of life’s fascinating twist of fate – to have landed in Silver Spring, Maryland where I continue that ‘exposure’ and learning. Both my local County Councilmember and my County Executive happen to be African-American. I am truly humbled by being able to serve them – and the community they represent - in my capacity as Area Director for Silver Spring.

So, as I contemplate the “I have a dream” speech, my heart is filled with gratitude for all those famously great and not-so-famously great people that have taught me – that are teaching me – the values of perseverance, honor, respect, and yes: Love!... I look forward with great joy and expectations to the experiences ahead as we continue the journey.

[I don't know how long this will be up, but for now you can view the whole speech HERE.  It is less than 18 minutes long. The official text from the Archives can be found HERE.]

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