MAXWELL:  Black leader’s day has come and gone

2/6/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Omali Yeshitela, president of the National Democratic Uhuru Movement, is a case study in wasted leadership.

Last year, when he ran for mayor of St. Petersburg, I interviewed him and was impressed with many of his ideas.

Here, for example, was his broad vision for economic growth in the black community: “I believe a program which has at its core the need to build economic and community commerce for the black community can be advantageous to the entire city and all its citizens. Black community commerce would mean an expanded economy for the city. It would grow the city’s economy. It would have a positive impact on the city’s tax base, grow and improve the housing stock, lower unemployment and the crime rate and place more money into the local economy with all the implications for spinoff associated with it.”

He also met with the Times editorial board and impressed some board members with his insight and eloquence. Given his controversial history, he made a fair showing in the election.

He proved to be a sore loser, however, and his fortunes have changed. Early in 2002, Yeshitela finds himself being marginalized even in the African-American community where, until now, most black leaders avoided publicly disagreement with his socialist message and his indictment of the police.

Yeshitela’s notoriety took off in December 1966, when he ripped down a mural in City Hall and marched through the streets with the art. He was convicted, had his civil rights taken away and served a two-year prison term.

Following the police killing of black motorist TyRon Lewis and the ensuing riots in 1996, Yeshitela called for the executions of then-Mayor David Fischer and then-police Chief Darrel Stephens. The Police Department, he claimed, was an “occupying army” in the black community.

Ironically, the political dynamics that grew out the violence improved Yeshitela’s stock as a leader. He emerged as a legitimate mover and shaker and was included in high-level discussions and planning sessions related to improving conditions in “Midtown.” Naive observers believed Yeshitela finally had joined mainstream politics.

But that was then.

Now, Yeshitela, apparently hearing the call of the 1960s and 1970s, has returned to ruling out police presence as part of Midtown’s economic development. Following a week when two explosives were tossed at police officers _ causing minor injuries _ Yeshitela held a press conference and encouraged black residents to rebel against a “policy of policement containment.” He has accused a band of rogue cops of wanting to incite a “climate of confrontation” between black residents and the Police Department.

But his most reckless remarks are inexcusable and show a lack of leadership: “If the police in their actions have declared war with this community, you shouldn’t be surprised that somebody out there is willing to engage them.”

As a result of these and other statements, Yeshitela inadvertently has embolden many black leaders _ most notably NAACP president Darryl Rouson, City Council members Rene Flowers and Earnest Williams and county Commissioner Ken Welch _ to challenge him. For St. Petersburg in general and Midtown in particular, the significance of this new willingness to confront Yeshitela is hard to overstate.

Where fear once reigned, black leaders now can give one another cover to speak out.

The Uhuru chairman cut himself down to size, squandering the political capital he had built up before last year’s mayoral election. His eloquence, charisma and ability to rally his comrades have lost their intimidating edge.

Worse yet, some people who disagreed with him but who respected his courage now wonder why a man with such leadership potential would shoot himself in the foot _ again. Yeshitela has spoiled his welcome at City Hall and other seats of power.

During our interview last year, he admonished others in the mayoral race: “My overall theme is the need for strong, innovative and courageous leadership that could mobilize a St. Petersburg . . . black, white and others . . . united in financial prosperity. Up to now, this has not happened because politicians have been limited by cynicism, fear and a politics of divisiveness.”

“Cynicism.” “Fear.” “Divisiveness.” Unfortunately, Yeshitela has described his own political agenda. Even his good work, such as his after-school program for neighborhood children, gets lost behind the rhetoric. His role as a leader has changed forever, and he has only himself to blame.