January 1 - January 7, 2015
“A LEGEND & HERO GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN”
“THE LIFE & LEGACY OF JOHN RIVERS”
BY MWEZI DAKE...In the African-American community when a person’s life ends this end is not called dying or passing but “transitioning”, and this transitioning is celebrated mixed with sadness, sorrow, joy of celebrating sweet memories of a life well lived. In the transitioning of John Rivers, local legend, hero, Civil rights activist, loving husband, father, friend to the community and a man of character, integrity, strength and courage this celebration and remembering is going to take a long time.
The life of John Rivers began long before he became a resident of Florida. John was born in Suggsville, Alabama. In 1951, John came to Florida with his wife and children because he had a friend from Alabama that lived here and John wanted to check out the area before considering a move from Alabama to Detroit or other points north. When John got here, he liked the area and the decision was made to relocate from Mobile, Alabama to Sarasota. John moved here with his wife and children.
John has been quoted as saying, “When we got here, it (Sarasota) was way behind in everything.” John noted that there were no people of color in any position any local government position, positions of power, law enforcement, no school teachers in white schools and the county was extremely apparently segregated in every area. African-American residents were not allowed to enter or eat at any restaurant unless they entered at the back door; the same was true at the courthouse. There were two distinct and separate communities. There was the white community residents which had unlimited freedom to go anywhere they wanted and to go into any establishment they chose to and then there was the African-American or Negro community as it was called, which were not allowed the freedoms and were kept very segregated in all areas.
John Rivers did not agree with the segregation and began a life-long campaign and crusade to change the face of Sarasota’s voice of power and decision-making.
The list of John River’s accomplishments is lengthy and monumental. Where does one begin to unravel the strong threads this life of John River weaved to create the community where there is no longer segregated schools, or a city where a McDonald’s once didn’t serve anyone of color except at the back door, or the pressure John applied to the State of Florida and the city of Sarasota to desegregate schools and the champion of Booker School.
In 1951, the city of Sarasota was not friendly or open to people of color and there was an overt openness of blatant racism and segregation. John Rivers did not take a back seat or a cowering attitude in this atmosphere and at the same time, John Rivers took a clear and outspoken stand to not just defend the rights of people of color and Rivers defended people of all color when issues presented were unfair and inequitable. Rivers began tackling the racism when he and his family were not allowed to go to the local Lido Beach. Police were called when Rivers took his family to Lido Beach and Rivers was told that the beach was closed but Rivers could go to Venice Beach, which was over twenty miles away and there would be no problem for River and his family to go there. Rivers did go to the Venice Beach and he is quoted as saying, “It (Venice Beach) was nice but it was just silly to have to travel twenty plus miles to go to a beach when we have one a few miles from where we live.” John Rivers picked up a ball of strong convictions and began to weave a plan to integrate Lido Beach. John called for people of color to join him and go to Lido Beach on Saturdays and Sundays. Rivers didn’t see this move as protest but more as a Civil Right and a loud statement for fairness and equitable privilege for people who were being discriminated against based on the color of skin. So the crowds came to Lido Beach to enjoy the beauty of the beach, enjoy family outings and spend the day, this crowd also happened to be hundreds of people who were African-American (Negro). The police were called and as soon John and the other people waded into the water, as he described it, “white people left the water,” The police began to take photos of the cars of African-American people who came to the beach and the tag numbers of the cars were taken and the information were given out to the community. People who were at the beach lost their jobs because of the peaceful protest, this angered John Rivers and he once again picked up the threads of change to weave a different outcome.
Rivers began a wave of regular Saturday and Sundays to go to the beach. When the police came to stop Rivers and the others, Rivers is quoted as saying, “No, no, no, you (police) go on back to town and if we need you, we will call you. But other than that, we don’t need you.” The police and after a while, the white people began to come to the beach again and there it became less of an issue. Rivers was confronted by the John Birch society about the beach situation. The birch society offered to build an island for “Negroes” and would offer boat rides to the island instead of swimming at the beach. Rivers declined the offer and said the beach would be fine for his community. The Birch Society then offered to build a pool for Newtown residents as an alternative for going to the beach. At first, Newtown residents rejected the offer and were offended but Rivers talked to the residents and convinced them to accept the offer but without acquiescing to the demand to stop going to the beach. The pool was built and on the day of the dedication of the pool, the Newtown residents celebrated by going to the Lido Beach. Rivers felt that it was a victory in every way.
This was not the only thread Rivers wove into the tapestry of equal rights; Rivers took on the insurance business. When an insurance agent who sold insurance policies in the Newtown area came to Rivers and protested against the “Negroes going to the white beaches”, Rivers called the insurance company headquarters and is quoted as saying, “We don’t want him back in our neighborhood no more, collecting our money, when he (agent) objects to it, (protest), being a part of the assistance of us being a human being.” Again, this maverick, Rivers was paramount in the agent being transferred immediately.
Rivers spoke of Sarasota as being a separate city and wholly desegregated.
No person of color was allowed to use a restroom in the downtown area and had to go to the train station and use the bathroom facility marked with “Colored Only” sign. There were no people of color in any city, government, school, law enforcement anywhere in the city. There was an incident with Citizen’s Bank and Rivers wove his magic and tenacious stand quickly. Rivers called a news conference and asked that people of all color, white and black to come to the Citizen’s Bank and remove their money from the bank as a loud statement of the bank’s racist business practices. Rivers felt that if the bank didn’t respect people of color by allowing them to enter into the front door or to hire tellers and bank employees of color then the bank wouldn’t mind if these same people withdrew their money. The President of the bank called Rivers from Miami and asked what he needed to do change the situation. Rivers told the man he needed to come and appear on camera and publicly apologize and to change the hiring procedures at the bank. The President came, apology given and the hiring practices at the bank were changed.
Rivers took a firm stand when it came to the schools being desegregated. There were children who had to travel over twenty miles from Laurel and Venice to attend school at Booker, a school for African-American children and staff. The School Board of Sarasota was determined to tear down Booker School and all the schools in North Sarasota and bus Black students out of their district.
River proposed keeping Booker standing and bus in “white students” to integrate the county. The School Board held their position and Rivers organized a boycott of the schools in 1969 and on a Monday morning, the School Board became aware of the impact Rivers had in the community. The boycott drew a 95% of students who did not attend classes and teachers and assistants protested too. The School board realized Rivers would not back down and the protest was just a trickle in the bucket as to what would come if they did not relent and relent the Board did. Rivers organized churches to open their doors and to use their facilities as classrooms for students. Cafeterias opened to feed the students. The tactics worked. Booker and the other schools in North Sarasota were saved and “white” students” were bussed to the Black schools to integrate.
McDonald’s restaurant was not always the friendly place it is now, in the 1960’s McDonalds in Sarasota would not allow “Negroes” or Black patrons inside their restaurants unless they entered through a back door. Rivers was a large and imposing force to see this change. Rivers is reported to have gone into the McDonalds in Sarasota and speak to the manager, the manager told Rivers there would be no problem, and when Rivers entered the McDonalds there was a problem. Rivers is quoted in an interview as saying, “When he got out there, and I gave him my name, he liked to flip because I had already called him on the phone and he promised that that was all taken care of, and it wasn’t. So, he had to do [something], and he offered all kinds of service, some hamburgers, and all that to distribute to some of the kids. So with that, we solved that problem, “That kind of humble strength was what made the life of John Rivers so amazing.
Rivers saw an issue that affected so many and hit the issue head on.
Rivers became the President of the Sarasota’s Branch of the NAACP (National Association of the Advancement of Colored People). Rivers attended a meeting and at the first meeting became an elected official and quickly became President. As President of the NAACP Rivers used this position wisely and with great voice and strength and the campaigns to desegregate the beaches worked, desegregated schools and going head to head with the very bigoted Sarasota school board. Rivers organized boycotts of businesses that discriminated against people of color and refused them service and/or allowed the people to only enter through the back doors. The protest, all non-violent, worked and change came quickly. In 1985, Rivers was part of filing a federal lawsuit against the city of Sarasota as a way to force the Sarasota to change its electoral system to allow African-American citizens the opportunity to run and be elected to City Commission and for other city positions of power. This lawsuit opened the way for past Commissioners, Fredd Atkins, the late Delores Dry, Rev. Jerome Dupree, Carolyn Mason who is at present a County Commissioner and Mayor Willie Shaw.
John Rivers was not shy about speaking for rights and for doing right. Rivers did not make apologies when it came to standing toe-to-toe with those who were oppressing people and robbing them of their civil rights. River’s fight for people reached out to every area of the community. When people of color went to the local clinic and were not seen, as Rivers is quoted as saying, “were being ignored,’ Rivers went to the clinic and made appointments for people. Arranged transportation and made sure people arrived on time to appointments and made sure people were seen at their appointment times and given fair and good treatment. Rivers was a part of HUD and worked in the position of Director of HUD, and was a part of Sarasota United Need, OEO program and as Rivers described he felt that “white people in power” began to be afraid of his position of authority and powerful influence in the community. Rivers position at HUD was terminated and Rivers filed a civil lawsuit in Atlanta, Georgia to be reinstated. Rivers went to great lengths to insure he received a fair treatment, Rivers took photographs of his boss who was chairman of the board of HUD and the chairman’s secretary when they were out together, Rivers believed the two of them (secretary and chairman) were involved in a personal relationship outside of work and Rivers took photos of them out together. When the hearing came about, Rivers produced the photos and when the chairman saw the photo display placed in front of him, Rivers is quoted what the chairman said as, “Well, there won’t be any hearing for John today. He’s a good guy doing work. So let’s just put him (John) back on his job and then pay him for all of the time and all of the promotion he (John) would have gotten during that period. Whatever it is. He’s (John) a good guy.”
Rivers spoke of being a “free person in a sense,” after that issue.
Rivers was not a prejudiced man in any sense. Rivers didn’t fight by raising his fists, Rivers fought for causes by organizing, rallying people, and starting at the very top of the power chain to effect change. Rivers set his mind to do right for the right reasons. Rivers is quoted as describing himself, “I’ve always been the devil in a sense.” Rivers organized SURE, which stands for Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity. Rivers described the organization as one of being for all people of all races. SURE was organized to bring together all races to begin to work together on common causes, to build community and to become friends.
John Rivers was a part of the City of Sarasota Police Complaints Committee serving as an active member until Rivers submitted his resignation at an August 24, 2014 meeting. Rivers was a powerhouse force of insuring justice was reached on this committee and did not back down regardless of the issue. The Committee was formed when there was an incident of police brutality where a man of color who was drunk at the time of being arrested was stomped by police. Video of the stomping was leaked to the public and the Committee was formed to calm public outcry and concern. Rivers worked on the Committee until the age of 80 years.
What a weaver and master of his own fate John Rivers was and will remain to be for many generations to come. Rivers has humbleness, which was obvious and displayed in his character, integrity and compassion he shared with everyone.
John Rivers transitioned on Wednesday morning at the age of 83. Rivers had been experiencing health problems for the past several years. Illness, threats, being told the requests John Rivers made were unreasonable and not the way things were done like that in Sarasota did not dim the lightness of River’s determined spirit and drive to do right, live right and fight for civil rights of all and especially the citizens and residents of Newtown. The positive influence and compassion Rivers gave out made him one of the “richest men” in town and perhaps around the world. Many that now lead the charge for continuing to insure civil rights and being treated with dignity, respect and fairness does not dim can credit being mentored, lead, guided, taken by the hand and simply standing in the “Big Man’s” shadow of John Rivers. This Hero, Leader, Friend and Activist may have left the physical world but will not soon be forgotten. So, please, for every student who can now walk into Booker High School and every other school in Sarasota without fearing for their lives because they might be in the wrong place because of the color of their skin and those who can walk into any McDonalds and be served regardless of the color of their skin should thank John Rivers. Thank you John Rivers. Thank you. We will remember you. I think that every time a bell rings we should know that finally John Rivers got his well -deserved wings.
BREA HOWARD AND DELEON JELKS GRADUATE
BY C.S. HOWARD...Brea C. Howard recently graduated from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Technology. She is a 2006 graduate of Southeast High School and earned her Associates degree from State College of Florida. While at Southeast, Brea was a member of the Senior Advisory Board, Key Club and Future Business Leaders of America. As a sophomore, she graduated from Presidential Classroom in Washington, D.C., in the Law and Justice in a Democracy Institute. She was also active Delta Sigma Theta Sorority’s Delta Academy and Delta Gems mentoring programs. At FAMU, she was president of the Department of Computer and Information Sciences Mentoring Program.
Brea will begin her career on January 5th as a Programmer/Analyst with Tyson Foods, Inc. at its corporate headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas. She is the daughter of Cynthia Howard of Tallevast and Whizz Howard of Sarasota.
DeLeon Jelks graduated from Valencia College where he received an Associates of Arts degree in General Studies and an Associates of Science degree in Drafting and Design Technology. He is also certified in Drafting in Auto Cad and Rapid Prototyping. DeLeon is a 2011 graduate of Riverview High School. He will continue his education and plans to pursue a bachelors degree in Engineering Technology. DeLeon is the son of Dennis and Achovia Jelks of Sarasota, and has a daughter, Nala.