MAXWELL:  Activist shouldn’t get or want apology

9/15/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


This is my first _ perhaps last _ time writing about the controversy of apologizing or not apologizing to Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela.

We all know the story: In 1966, Yeshitela (Joe Waller in those days), ripped down the grand staircase mural in City Hall that portrayed caricatures of black troubadours entertaining white picnickers at the beach. Then, Yeshitela said the mural “depicts Negroes in a most despicable, derogatory manner.” He, along with other protesters, dragged it through downtown streets. He was arrested, convicted of destroying city property and served two years in prison. He also was stripped of his civil rights.

No one has asked for my opinion in this matter, but I give it because an important issue bearing on the real meaning of the situation has been ignored.

First, Yeshitela deserved to be locked up. Second, he deserved to lose his civil rights. Why? Because he knowingly broke the law. He committed the time-honored act of civil disobedience. Like Henry David Thoreau, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. before him, he challenged what he considered to be a government-sanctioned injustice. He knew that cops would chase him down, cuff him and toss him in a cell.

He got exactly what he wanted. Like other effective black activists of the period, he incited the worst instincts of a bigoted establishment.

Today, he does not deserve an apology. And he should not accept one. An apology would nullify the revolutionary spirit of his action of more than 30 years ago. Those who commit civil disobedience do so with their toothbrushes and combs in their pockets, their eyes staring at imprisonment.

In his tract, “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau wrote, “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” Thoreau chose to transgress at once what he perceived to be an unjust poll tax. He proudly went to the hoosegow.

When a jaded Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on that hot bus, she thumbed her nose at the sheriff and his jail. As did Martin Luther King _ wearing a wry smile _ after refusing to leave the streets of Birmingham, Ala.

Listen to King, writing about the efficacy of civil disobedience, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

+ “Words cannot express the exultation felt by the individual as he finds himself, with hundreds of his fellows, behind prison bars for a cause he knows is just.”

+ “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

+ From King’s book Why We Can’t Wait: “If a people can produce from its ranks 5 percent who will go voluntarily to jail for a just cause, surely nothing can thwart its ultimate triumph.”

Yeshitela is a smart, well-read provocateur, but I wonder if he has read “Civil Disobedience” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I agree with him and others that the city should apologize to the black community for the mural to start a long overdue, communitywide healing process.

Neither the city nor any other entity, however, should apologize to Yeshitela personally. He got what was coming to him. I have not spoken with him on this matter, but if he asked me, I would tell him to tell council member Bea Griswald to take her old lukewarm apology and, well, save it for a different black cause.

City Council member Frank Peterman is right to describe Yeshitela as a “hero.” But Peterman, too, misses the point by demanding a personal apology for Yeshitela. Again, it would diminish Yeshitela’s legacy. Chief of Staff Don McRae, Alvelita Donaldson, Yeshitela’s sister, and other members of a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens Action Committee should accept the council’s “general” apology.

Then, they should do something substantive to help St. Petersburg’s dysfunctional black community. Why not, say, try to persuade more black parents to take their children’s education seriously?

I admire Yeshitela for tearing down the mural and going to prison. Martin Luther King captured the real meaning of such acts. His detractors, such as Griswald, who call Yeshitela a criminal for his deed, also should heed King’s wisdom: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”