Harry Lee, Willie Mae and Fannie Lou: ‘Lest we forget’

BY GOLIATH J. DAVIS, III, PH.D., Contributor

ST. PETERSBURG — I am asked why I am so passionate about education. The answer is a simple one. As a product of segregation, I so vividly recall mama, grandma, granddaddy, community activists, and educators sounding the alarm: “Education is the way up and out.”

I heard, and I complied.  When I joined the St. Petersburg Police Department, I followed the arrest data, and it confirmed what I already knew regarding the disproportionate arrest rates for African Americans, specifically males.

Through the Community Alliance (a multiracial group to address discrimination) and the Community Police Council, I began to work with school superintendents on educational equity issues. I emphasized a need to change the nature of the relationship between law enforcement and education.

My position then and now is that every time schools fail children of color, I, as a law enforcement officer, win — the jail/prison population swells.  Today we speak of this as the school-to-prison-pipeline phenomenon.

I am called a “loudmouth” and other less than affectionate names by current district administrators for relentlessly challenging district policies and practices.  More recently, I have been vociferous regarding the community’s displeasure surrounding how Nikita J. Reed’s departure and replacement was managed.

I wear the “loudmouth” moniker as a badge of honor.

I make no apologies for advocating for black and brown children and their parents laboring in Pinellas District schools. I do so in honor of deceased grassroots advocates, Harry Lee Williams, Willie Mae Sanderson and Fannie Lou Hamer.  Harry “the crab man” and Ms. Willie Mae, NAACP member, were St. Petersburg residents. Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer was a Mississippi native and organizer.

All three were passionate civil rights activists committed to civic engagement and political action. They were common folks with the common touch.  They were courageous individuals who were more committed to freedom than fear of losing a job or material possessions.

Mrs. Hamer is the best known nationally of the three for her activism on the national stage and her well-known expression of her frustrations with black life in segregated America.  She asserted:  “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

We all should invoke the presence of these three heroes.  For if Harry Lee, Willie Mae, and Fannie Lou could do it, why can’t we?  Why can’t we all raise our voices and convey our concerns to the district and board?  Why can’t we continue to sound the alarm?

We must encourage our children to value education and those involved in the educational enterprise to value our scholars.  Education is the way, and quality education requires consistent advocacy and pressure on the system.

Frederick Douglass admonished us: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will.  Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed. . .”

Some view Reed’s departure as insignificant even though her hard work yielded the most significant results to date for scholars under her care in the Transformation Zone.  Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego’s management of her departure and replacement was insulting and disrespectful.

If we quietly submit to such treatment, we should expect similar future acts or greater.  Those of us who have been blessed with upward mobility due in part to our education, training, and the activism of Harry Lee, Willie Mae, Fannie Lou, and others owe our children what they gave us — advocacy and agitation.

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