Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party
BY ALLEN A. BUCHANAN & CARLA BRISTOL
ST. PETERSBURG – The march started around Fairfield Avenue and 20th Street South near Frank Peterman’s store some 50 years ago. Once people of all ages from the black community reached City Hall, they began to make speeches, protest and discuss the unacceptable conditions for African Americans living in St. Pete.
When one elderly woman got up to speak, a fire arose in 25-year-old Joe Waller, soon to become an icon for social justice and change.
Waller, now known as Omali Yeshitela, recalled December 29, 1966, and began to relive the moment that altered the trajectory of his purpose and life’s mission.
“…and the old woman wanted to speak. This was our time. This is who we were. We gave her the chance to speak, and she started talking,” said Yeshitela last Thursday at the anniversary celebration.
The elderly woman began to talk about how insurance companies were unfairly taking money from the black community.
Yeshitela said in between the split infinitives and double negatives coming out of her mouth, white cops and reporters began to laugh at her.
“That incensed me! So plan or not, I turned around and went in the building and snatched the mural off the wall,” said Yeshitela, who is now the Chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party.
Seventeen-year-old Jody Wall followed Yeshitela into City Hall and watched him tear down the racist propaganda.
“This lovely white woman, who was a city clerk, was standing up on the stairwell and very eloquently said, ‘You black bastards!’ And we marched out of City Hall with that mural.”
The mural depicted caricatures of black people playing music on the beach for white revelers in a despicable, derogatory manner.
Fighting alongside Yeshitela and Wall for justice and decency that day were John Bryant, Lemuel Green, Tommy Williams and Crawford Jones. The young members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) attempted to elude the police, but Yeshitela was eventually stopped and arrested.
For that bold act in defense of black dignity, Yeshitela was sentenced to five years on multiple felony charges and served two and a half years in prison.
Yeshitela was joined at the 50th anniversary celebration last week held at the Uhuru House on 18th Avenue South by fellow justice seeker and long-time friend John Bryant.
Although the City Hall Stairwell Mural Project Committee has reached out to Yeshitela on numerous occasions to become a part of the discussion for the current $50,000 mural replacement project since the middle of the year, he has not responded favorably.
“What the city is attempting to do now is to replace the mural that was there with an image that subsequently presupposes that things have gotten so much better for African people in this city. We say that’s a lie.”
As the celebration was winding down, correspondent for 99 JAMS Carla Bristol spoke with several people from the community as they left the event to get their feedback.
Business owner Gwen Fields was surprised about what actually happened and how. She had no idea the tearing down of the mural was not planned.
Rev. Dr. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church was impressed how millennials are stepping up to the plate to tackle complex community issues.
“I also learned about how the young people here in the Uhuru Movement are taking these struggles on in a personal way and demonstrating that this movement and those of the future are being placed in good hands.”
Brother Brad Mohammad felt that one must be relentless in fighting for what one feels is just.
“I received a lot of history that I never knew about the struggle we’ve been in for so long, for over 50 years,” Mohammad said.
He commented on how he admires Yeshatela’s relentless fight for the freedom of black people by showing that if African Americans “do not fight for something, they will fall for anything.”
At the end of the day, community success results in partnerships even if they may feel a bit uncomfortable at first. Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter echoes that approach in her feedback.
“I do agree with him that we as African Americans we need to come together and work together. It’s not about me, you, Omali, it’s about all of the people. We may not agree on everything, but we’ve got to make that effort. And I think that begins with us starting to listen to one another.”