Among the many high schools in Philadelphia, Central High School is the oldest in the district. Its doors opened in 1838 as the second public high school in the nation. There were four teachers and 63 students. Now, Central’s student population has reached approximately 2,360 students and over 100 teachers. There is a school president, similar to a principal, and three assistant principals.
Originally, Central housed an all boys’ population. Philadelphia High School for Girls was its counterpart. Until August 1983, the school became co-ed.
In 2011, Central was named a National Blue Ribbon School. Within the past decade, Central has consecutively made Adequate Yearly Progress and won 92 Public League Championships. Additionally, Central has had an extensive resume of national and international attention.
Before the first graduating class in 1842, Central held semi-annual commencements until 1965. Now, graduation happens annually, making this year's class the 271st graduating class of Central High School.
There are a host of notable Central Alumni who have excelled in careers of journalism, politics, science, math, technology, law, music, acting and education. Alain LeRoy Locke, author, philosopher and first African-American Rhodes Scholar, graduated in the 107th class. Frank “Tick” Coleman, educator and one of the first three known African-American Eagle Scouts, graduated in the 156th class. Philadelphia City councilman and son of former mayor W. Wilson Goode, W. Wilson Goode Jr. graduated in the 241st class. Seth Williams, district attorney of Philadelphia, graduated in the 244th class.
Through financial gifts of Central Alumni, the school was able to create a $6 million library. In Barnwell Library, there are several quiet rooms to study, computers are available for research and shelves filled with books. Additionally, there is a room full of memorabilia that showcases school apparel, trophies won and pictures of previous classes.
Students are kept engaged in academics, athletics and social experiences through several extra-curricular activities offered at Central.
Senior Jessica Beaver is an active member of the Central community. Beaver works as a student leader to one of the assistant principals, runs school tours and organizes the International Day, Career Day and High School Expo. She is the editor-in-chief of Mosaic, which is Central’s multicultural magazine, public relations officer of the concert choir and drama society and she’s involved with the school’s West Side Story musical.
“At Central, I have really have gotten to know and understand different types of people. At Central there is a representative from every part of the city and every ethnicity you could possibly think of. That interactive has prepared me, I think, for the real world as well as the academic side of it,” Beaver said. “Classes at Central are immensely challenging. The course load is heavy, and it’s comprehensive. So, I get a well-rounded education, a lot of hands on and simulated activities.”
Interactive activities are seen in room 328. Music teacher, Ben Blazer, assisted students with their presentations of musical periods in Western music.
Freshmen Genesis Sanchez, Genehia Walton and Najey McDuffie are preparing their PowerPoint presentation on the Renaissance musical era. These three students explained their experiences so far at Central. They liked attending the Freshmen Tea, an event that introduced ninth graders to activities and clubs at Central. Sanchez, Walton and McDuffie said they liked going to the school’s football and basketball games and lessons learned as freshmen.
Sanchez, a member of the track team and belly dance club, said she always enjoyed these activities and is excited to perform at Central’s Annual International Day in February.
Walton is thinking of being a member of the softball team and has interests in joining the school’s choir. She explained her sentiments about Central prior to attending and how those feelings have changed since the beginning of the school year.
“Now that I’m here, it’s not as hard as everybody talks about it. You got to actually stay on task. If you don’t stay on top of your work, keep organized and pay attention, then you’re going to be lost,” Walton said.
In contrast, McDuffie said she feels that the workload at Central is more than what she was used to as a student in middle school.
“Central was a lot different than my old school. The rigor of the work and how much work you get, homework, projects, tests every week. I wasn’t used to studying because I used to just know everything. Now, I really have to study,” McDuffie said.
Mia Clark, freshman and member of the self-defense club, discussed assignments given in classes, but said she has learned how to manage.
“It’s hard, I always knew it would be hard. Sometimes it might feel overwhelming because every teacher gives homework, but you figure out how to do it. You learn how to take care of yourself and you do learn a lot here [in Central],” Clark said.
As Clark sat in World History, the class prepared to play bingo with questions about Hinduism. Each student folded a loose-leaf piece of notebook paper into 16 squares. Students then answered 16 questions about the religion and wrote the answers in the boxes.
Lori Defields, an assistant principal, said it is interesting to see students engaged in interactive activities like educational bingo. She said teachers at Central like, George Filip, have the ability to make subject material more appealing to students.
“He engages the kids in a way that in English class, some teachers just can’t. He makes that class enjoyable for every student regardless of their talents, their skills and their interests. I really think he’s a really great teacher, but I go by what the kids say and the feedback I get is just phenomenal,” Defields said.
In a second level English class, Filip announced the three words of the day. Jokingly, he gave students the definitions of the words clandestine, acquiesce and acquiescence and asked them if they could use these words in their daily conversation.
Later as Filip handed pack chapter five review quizzes on the book “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, 10th-grader, Matrea Thomas cleared her desk to grade another classmate’s review quiz.
“He’s a good teacher. He’s different, but you’ll be able to understand him. Instead of just lecturing us he actually has conversations with us and conferences,” Thomas said.
Similarly, art department chair, Benjamin Walsh received praise from administration and students, as well.
“[He’s] highly talented,” Dr. Sheldon Pavel, president of Central, said.
“He wears so many hats. There’s not enough hours in the day for him,” Defields said.
As the web design teacher, member of the technology committee, swimming coach, the school’s Web designer and set designer for the school’s musicals, Walsh is engaged in many responsibilities at Central.
“It’s a busy day. As long as it benefits the students and everything that you do makes that piece more enriching for them and it gives them more tools and allows them to focus and learn more clearly,” Walsh said. “In the case of the play, it gives them a different experience outside the academic realm. That’s all worth it for me. I like being busy that way. I think most of it’s just making yourself available.”
In room 311, Walsh helped the web design class work on a five page website about environmental topics. In partnership with environmental science teacher, Galeet Cohen, the students will present their websites on Earth Day.
Senior, Naacara Edwards, chose to focus on global warming. She and her classmates used computer programs, Fireworks and Photoshop, to make interactive graphs and learned CSS computer code to make their sites from scratch. Edwards said she enjoyed creating the site for class and expressed her goals for college.
“I want to go to school for engineering so I could be a computer science engineer, but this is just for fun now,” Edwards said.
It has been 34 years since nine members of the radical group MOVE were convicted for the 1978 murder of Philadelphia police officer James J. Ramp during a police seizure in Powelton Village, and four years since eight members of the original MOVE 9 — Debbie Sims Africa, Janet Hollaway Africa, Janine Philips Africa, Williams Philips Africa, Delbert Orr Africa, Michael Davis Africa, Charles Sims Africa and Edward Goodman Africa — became eligible for parole.
The ninth member, Merle Austin Africa, died in prison in March 1998.
And depending on who is telling the story, the MOVE 9 are either guilty as charged, or a symbol of an oppressive judicial system hell-bent on silencing its critics and stamping out left-wing revolutionaries.
“Charles Africa’s parole hearing is coming up, and Debbie saw the parole board in June and was denied,” said MOVE spokesperson Ramona Africa. “The issue MOVE has is the demand for MOVE people to ‘take responsibility for the crime.’ MOVE people did not kill Ramp; we were in our own home when we were surrounded by thousands of cops. We didn’t go to [former Mayor Frank] Rizzo’s house, and we didn’t go to [former Police Commissioner Joseph F. O’Neill’s] house; they came to our house and attacked us in warlike fashion.”
Ramp was killed by a shot to the back of the head, and all members of the MOVE 9 were convicted of third degree murder.
The August 8, 1978, shooting of Ramp was the culmination of several confrontations MOVE had with the police department, and a chilling precursor to the infamous May 1985 Osage Avenue clash that resulted in a bomb being dropped on MOVE’s Osage Avenue compound, which led to the death of 11 people, including MOVE founder John Africa, and the decimation of several city blocks containing 65 homes.
Ramona Africa contends that “MOVE people didn’t kill anybody,” and believes there are holes in the theory that points to her organization as the culprits.
“If officials really believed MOVE killed Ramp, they wouldn’t have demolished the scene of the crime — but they demolished it within hours,” Africa said. “There should never have even been a trial once [the city] demolished the scene — that’s destroying evidence, leaving MOVE with no way to adequately defend itself.”
Africa contends MOVE 9 opted for a bench trial in front of late trial Judge Edward Malmed because the group didn’t want to appear before a slanted jury. But that decision came at a price.
“The burden was put squarely on the shoulders of Malmed, who is supposed to be learned in the law, objective and sworn to simply follow the legality that dictates procedure,” Africa said. “The judge did not do that, because if he had, he would have dismissed the case because of destruction of evidence.
“After the trial, Malmed convicted nine of my family members of third degree murder and conspiracy,” Africa continued. “And that is a contradiction. If he’s saying they conspired to kill a cop, wouldn’t that be first degree and not third? There are numerous inconsistencies here that clarify that my family was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 100 years, not because they committed any crime or any officials believe they did, but because they are MOVE people and committed revolutionaries.” Africa also contends that MOVE member and current life sentence prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal once asked Malmed to name the person responsible for Ramp’s murder, and Malmed allegedly responded that he hadn’t the faintest idea.
Officials with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole wouldn’t comment further than confirming the hearing dates, and the minimum and maximum time each member must serve. While all remaining MOVE 9 members have been denied parole at their most recent hearing, two were denied parole for curious reasons. Edward Goodman Africa was denied due to a negative recommendation by the Department of Corrections, while Michael Davis Africa was denied due to his “denial of offenses committed,” according to parole board spokesperson Leo Dunn.
“Most people know, if nothing else, that in order to convict someone, whether judge or jury, you have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Africa, who has been denied visitation rights with her incarcerated family members, despite being out of jail herself for 20 years and has had a clean criminal record since her 1992 release. “Judge Malmed, obviously, was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The fallout from the 1985 bombing of MOVE’s compound resulted in former Mayor W. Wilson Goode authorizing a commission to investigate the decision-making of officials involved, and make recommendations on ways to avoid such confrontations in the future.
Africa contends that both the mayor and district attorney’s offices aren’t adhering to the commission’s suggestion of keeping open the lines of communication.
“For a little over a month now, we’ve been trying to get a meeting with [District Attorney] Seth Williams and Mayor Michael Nutter to discuss the issues pertaining to my family,” Africa said. “Nutter is the mayor of this city and needs to know what’s going on. We are not going to allow him to feign ignorance; we want to meet them.
“We want to meet with Williams because as district attorney he has authority over any criminal case, and because he gave a negative recommendation as district attorney to the parole board,” Africa continued. “Seth Williams doesn’t even know my family, as he was just a kid in 1978.
“The thing is that commission Wilson Goode put together said the city made a terrible mistake by not meeting with us and keeping lines of communication open — that it never happens again and to keep lines of communication open. The mayor is not doing that, and the district attorney is not doing that.”
District Attorney Spokesperson Tasha Jamerson draws a stark contradiction to Africa’s claims. While not commenting on the merits of the MOVE 9’s conviction and subsequent parole denials, Jamerson did take issue with Africa’s claim of communication misfires.
“The district attorney gets swamped by piles of mail and requests, and anyone who requests to meet, I go over it with [Williams],” Jamerson said, noting the process calls for anyone wishing to meet with Williams to submit a formal written request — something Jamerson said Africa failed to do. “If Ramona Africa sent any kind of request, I would have asked about it. If she asked for a meeting, I think [Williams] would meet with her, but no letter has come, and no phone call has come.”
Jamerson noted that Williams isn’t ducking any confrontation; rather, he and Africa have been in the same building at the same time on numerous occasions, one being at a recent screening and discussion about Tigre Hill’s controversial film, “The Barrel of A Gun,” and said there was a time when Williams tried to approach Africa — only to be shunned.
“There has been some communication back and forth,” Jamerson said. “But I’d point out that before the election in November, Williams was at an event in Old City and wanted to shake her hand and talk to her a little bit.
“She brushed him aside.”
Mayor Michael Nutter’s spokesperson Mark McDonald confirmed that Nutter will not meet with Africa, as Nutter has no leverage or dealings in the matter.
“Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison handled the matter, and he says, what he learned from Africa is that her fight is with the parole board, and the mayor has no jurisdiction in this matter,” McDonald said. “Having a meeting for meeting’s sake doesn’t make sense. Ramona Africa has been informed of this some time ago. The mayor is polite and respectful of her, but won’t be meeting.”
In terms of release, Africa doubts her compatriots will ever be released before maxing out, meaning all MOVE 9 members are facing the prospect of dying in prison. And Africa doubts any of the incarcerated MOVE 9 members will ever cop a plea to somehow earn an early release.
“Our aim is not simply to get out of prison. Our aim is to expose and eliminate the rotten system that is the root of such injustices, so they will never say they are guilty. We continue to fight because we know our work is the same, whether we’re on the prison block or street block,” Africa said. “Guilt or innocence is not an issue with parole. What is supposed to determine parole is whether or not you’ve completed any designated programs, and my family has — they’ve even taught lessons. They also need an acceptable home and work plan, …
“None of my family members have bad conduct records,” Africa continued, allowing that one or two of her brothers may have had minor skirmishes while locked up. “Most importantly, their parole sheets don’t include any write-ups for misconduct. MOVE people aren’t going to lie, and more importantly, should not have to lie and say we are guilty if we are not.”
Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., head of Amachi, to be co-chair
Mobilizing the entire city government and allies across the city, Mayor Michael Nutter has re-established the Mayor’s Commission on African-American Males.
“The City of Philadelphia is eager to help,” the mayor said in announcing the new commission. “The entire city government, everyone in city government and all of our related agencies will have a role to play, will be tasked to support the efforts of the mayor’s commission.
The group will eventually be composed of about 30 volunteer members tasked with addressing unemployment, incarceration, a lack of education and health among Black men. They will issue an annual report on the state of African-American men in Philadelphia, along with recommendations for action.
“We must all look at the big picture,” Nutter said. “If a man is uneducated … if they are unemployed, if they are unhealthy, we pretty much know what their life path will be. But, if they are educated, employed and healthy they are a lot less likely to be part of the criminal justice system.”
Nutter signed an executive order creating the commission at a special ceremony Thursday afternoon at City Hall.
He also named its three co-chairs: former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., who first created the commission in 1991 and now heads Amachi, an education non-profit; Bilal Qayyum, president of the Father’s Day Rally Committee Inc. and Jamar Izzard, a radio host at 107.9.
“The plight of the African-American male is a crisis,” Goode said. “Unless something is done, then the future of African-American males looks very, very bleak.”
Goode first created the commission because he had concerns similar to Nutter’s.
“There are ways we can begin to deal with this problem if we show it attention,” he said, adding that if Nutter hadn’t asked him to be a part of the commission he would have begged to be appointed. “For me, this is my life’s work.”
Qayyum and Izzard echoed Goode.
“We have to challenge ourselves and all the others around us to change their attitude and their behavior,” Qayyum said. “We’re going to make some changes in this city to let folks know that there are more positive Black men in the city doing positive things than there are doing negative things.”
“I’m going to give it everything I have,” added Izzard.
Serving the community is in Kellan White’s genes.
Representing the third generation of Whites to serve the public — his grandfather, John F. White Sr., was instrumental in the African-American political movement from the 1960’s until his death in 1999, and his father, John F. White Jr., is a former member of City Council, and also represented the 200th District in the state House of Representatives — one would expect Kellan to make his mark in the political realm. But the 26-year-old White wanted to make his own way — which led him first to North Carolina, and then back to Philly and the Christian Street YMCA at 1724 Christian Street, where he currently serves as youth director.
“I grew up in Wynnefield, and my family has always been involved in the welfare of the city,” White said, noting that both his grandfather and father worked on the campaigns of former mayor W. Wilson Goode. “So, service was a big part of my upbringing.”
After graduating from Germantown Friends School in 2004, White decided not to follow the direct political lineage of his forefathers; rather, he attended the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, graduating in 2008 with a degree in sports management and recreational planning.
“When I was down there, I worked a lot, but still found ways to give back,” White said. “After I graduated, I worked in the athletic department, but I really wanted to come back to Philly.”
White’s time in North Carolina only stoked his desire for community work. He served as chairman of the student organization Carolina Fever, and created a partnership with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America. White also worked at the University of Minnesota as a marketing assistant in its athletic department before returning to Philadelphia.
White long wanted to fuse his love of athletics with his desire to reach back and serve the youth of his city, and as a volunteer in Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown’s office, he jumped at the chance to work at the Y.
Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. knows White’s work and came away impressed with his philanthropic nature.
“Kellan has utilized his area of interest and academic training for more than a paycheck; he’s pursuing his passion for mentoring young people,” Goode Jr. said. “He recognizes his work as a tangible form of community development.
“He’s impacting young people on a consistent basis, and filling in some of the gaps in their lives.”
White is active with the Rising Sons and Rising Philly organizations, and is currently serving on The American Heart Association’s Young at Heart board and sits on the Edward M. Stanton Elementary School Advisory Committee.
“It really cultivated my passions to give back to the community,” White said. “I started off doing youth sports, and as it grew, I became even more involved in the community and building programs around the kids.”
White works full-time at the Y, and he can be found leading youth through several drills — both academic and physical — and believes he’s developed a trust between himself and the youth, many of whom were jaded and cynical before White’s arrival.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two ways to get the youths’ attention. One way, you’re from the same neighborhood; and the other way is you’re close to them in age,” White said. “I tell them that I did grow up in a different situation, but at some point in my life, somebody had to reach back for me, believe in me and give me the tools to succeed.
“It really comes down to [the youth] wanting someone to listen to them,” White continued. “It makes them want to try harder and do more, especially the older kids. I spend countless hours in my office with them, just listening.”
All that listening and interaction has paid off, especially for teenagers like 14-year-old Malaia McGirt, who has been working with White since September. Her mother, Lorraine McGirt, says White’s interaction with her daughter is priceless.
“Kellan has a tiered system, where he begins by giving them some responsibilities, and depending on how they do, Kellan moves them up,” McGirt said. “My daughter saw this as an opportunity to position herself for employment later on.”
McGirt said that although her daughter is too young to officially work at the center, under White’s supervision, Malaia has become a fixture around the Y, helping with sign-ins and other tasks.
“Now she is involved in ‘Y Achievers,’ and [the center] is a very safe place for her,” McGirt said. “Kellan does a great job, gives the kids some independence, but it is very structured.”
White is serious about the plight of the city’s young. Through his many sessions, White has come away with the sense that many youth feel disenfranchised by the city, and that adults who can care — and should care — don’t.
“You can see City Hall from our roof, but most kids feel they have no chance and no opportunity to get there; they feel the city has left them for naught,” White said. “Even if it’s not true, that’s the feeling they get. So it’s my duty to let them know there’s a least one person there for them.
“I hope I get through to them. If I can change the life of just one kid, it’s good.”
It seems that whenever an African-American man or boy is in the news these days, it’s for doing something dark and nefarious.
In Philadelphia, even the most high-profile athlete in the city, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, has done jail time.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has been making gifting grants to communities all across the country for years, has noticed as well. And to circumvent the bad news, the Knight Foundation has partnered with the Open Society Foundation to make a change.
Having awarded more than $105 million in grants in 2009, the Knight Foundation is looking to bestow some of that money on the men of Philadelphia through the BME (Black Male Engagement) Challenge, the goal being to highlight African-American men and boys in the city who are making a positive impact in their communities, but won’t receive any recognition for the work they do.
Philadelphia and Detroit are the target cities for these first-time awards.
“We want to shine a light on the brothers who help others achieve, who involved neighbors, friends and strangers in things that uplift the community,” said Trabian Shorters, Knight Foundation’s vice president of communities. “If you want to see more Black men and boys providing their leadership in an effort to strengthen their neighborhoods and this city, we want to amplify the positive impact that Black males have in their communities every day.”
The first phase of the projected ended on Sept. 30. During this time voters were encouraged to visit the Web site bmechallenge.org and make nominations. As of press time Monday, Philadelphia had 1,008 nominations and Detroit had 1,047.
The next phase is the application period. Anyone who has entered or been nominated will be able to formally apply for grants, ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. Winners will be announced in early January. Before that, the Knight Foundation is looking to bring all of the applicants together around Thanksgiving with friends and family to honor them.
“We want to uplift and highlight Black men who are engaged in their communities,” said Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Philadelphia program director for the Knight Foundation, which is headquartered in Miami. “We decided to start by finding Black men who are already engaged in their communities and doing positive things. We wanted them to tell their stories about why they are doing positive things, and hopefully that will inspire others to do so also.”
There are no parameters, according to Frisby-Greenwood. All an entrant needs to be doing is something that benefits the community. Former Mayor, the Rev. W. Wilson Goode Sr. has been nominated for his work with Amachi. Goode is the director and organizer of the nationally acclaimed faith-based mentoring program that focuses on children with incarcerated parents.
But there are other entrants with much lower profiles than Goode’s. There are barbers who through their trade employ others. One nominee cleans the alleys in his neighborhood daily. There is a security guard who lost his daughter to domestic violence who is now strongly advocates against abusive men.
“Being able to employ people in this economy is great,” Frisby-Greenwood said. “We have men doing so many different things. And in many cases they don’t know that there are grants available to them. We are looking for new and innovative things. They are out there.”
In 1950, the Knight Foundation began dispersing grants, mostly in a small region of the Midwest. In 1993, it reincorporated as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cities that had Knight-Ridder newspapers — The Inquirer and Daily News were once a part of that chain — were designated as “Knight Communities” and, to this day, the company continues to fund grants in those 26 cities.
The Black Male Engagement Challenge is the fourth and latest competition set up by the Knight Foundation. The other three are the Knight Arts Challenge, the Knight News Challenge and the Knight Community Information Challenge.
Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. is gearing up to take on the prison/industrial complex, which is sending more and more African Americans, mostly men, to prison.
At stake is nothing less that the future of the Black community, said Goode.
“I crusade all across the country, trying to get people to understand this problem,” he said. “It’s something which, unless we’re careful, can effectively wipe out the Black male population.”
The cause is not a new one for Goode. But, with the growing number of incarcerated Americans — particularly African-American men — he has intensified his efforts to draw attention to the affects of incarceration on the larger society, especially children.
Though Blacks make up about 13 percent of the total population, African Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the prison population, which in 2011 hit 2.4 million.
If the trend continues, as it has for the last 30 years, said Goode, who met with the Tribune editorial board on Wednesday, one in three Black men will go to jail. In addition, 21 million children, approximately 25 percent of all children under the age of 18 — will be impacted by that incarceration rate.
Those statistics are something seemingly impossible for the larger community to ignore, though most do.
“People, for the most part, don’t take the time to understand what’s going on,” Goode said. “It’s a difficult message because when you say crime … people have a perception that crime is a lot worse that it is.”
There is a growing realization among policy makers, though, that the U.S. has to change. According to Goode, tougher crime laws enacted since the late 1970s — things like three strikes legislation and other measures — have increased the number of people going to prison by 80 percent, to the point where prison spending is starting to overwhelm state budgets.
But, undoing what has been done is politically challenging.
“People that passed the laws know that they made a mistake, for the most part,” Goode said. “But they don’t have courage enough to go back and change them because they fear voter rebellion.”
Forging real change will take a multi-faceted effort involving Black and white, liberal and conservative points of view to tackle the problem from various angles.
Goode is confident it can be done.
“It’s coming,” he said.
When he left the mayor’s office in 1992, Goode decided to dedicate his life to children, specifically the children of inmates, in an attempt to intervene before they fell into the same traps their parents had.
To that end, he founded a group called Amachi, which today is active in more than 20 cities, and 42 states and has statewide programs in 38 of those states.
The key is providing relationships for troubled children.
“One-to-one mentoring is a proven tool of intervention,” he said. “You have to be able to bond with that young person.”
Goode said Amachi is poised to become an integral part of intervention programs in the majority of the states in which it operates.
“What I term to be success is having this program operate without my personal involvement,” he said. “We’re a couple of years away from that.”
He touched the lives of thousands, and it was in his honor that hundreds gathered to say farewell to “a scholar with an African mission.” The funeral of Dr. Edward W. Robinson, Jr. was held Friday morning at the church in which he was born and raised, the A.M.E. Union Church, in the heart of North Philadelphia.
Just outside the church, a dozen drummers of all ages played in the midst of an oppressive heat wave. All morning, city dignitaries streamed through the church to pay respects to the educator and his family.
While his body laid in repose, images of Robinson in various stages of his life played in the background, as ushers carried baskets of fans and circulated through the aisles with bottles of cold water. The several hundred gathered fanned themselves endlessly as they comforted their hearts in the words offered by friends, colleagues and family members during the two-and-a-half hour service.
Robinson's casket, draped in a United States flag, was flanked by floral displays in the colors of the Pan-African flag — red, black and green — with one especially stunning arrangement forming the shape of the continent of Africa.
Proclamations were read from Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, State Senator Leanna Washington, and Congressman Chaka Fattah, along with resolutions from the Institute for the Preservation of Youth, the Paul Robeson House, the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Chaney University Alumni Association and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP. Also noted in the audience were music producer and educator Kenny Gamble, producer Bob Lott, activist Pam Africa, Judge Thomasina Tynes, Rep. Dwight Evans and Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams.
Remarks were offered from every branch of Robinson's life - from political to civic to personal. Speakers included Christine Thomas Wiggins, Founder of IMHOTEP Charter School; Ali and Helen Salahuddin, founders of the D'ZERT Club; Activist Michael Coard, Esq.; African-American scholar Dr. Molefi Kete Asante; Cody Anderson, former WDAS General manager and Dr. Mildred Johnson of Virginia State University, and Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia. “Dr. Robinson served his generation in an outstanding manner,” noted Goode. “The question is, who is going to serve this generation?”
“A great soul has passed this way,” said Asante. “A great man has lived among us.”
The amazing life that Robinson had lived and shared with those closest to him was obvious in the various titles accorded him: father, grandfather, great-grand-father, great-great grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, and most importantly, husband.
Robinson's widow Harriet eschewed the podium, instead choosing to stand next to the casket as she recited a poem while holding the arm of her beloved husband of 41 years. “I wanted you for life, you and me in the wind. I never thought there would come a time that our story would end. ... Maybe all I need to know and if I listen to my heart, I'll hear your laughter once more. And so I’ve got to say I'm just glad you came my way. It's not easy to say goodbye.”
If, as the old saying goes, politics is a contact sport; then Philadelphia politics is a no-holds-barred, steel cage death match.
Every campaign season, we are inundated with candidates whose shameless win-at-all-costs philosophy embarrasses us into not voting for them, or not voting at all. Every Election Day, whether primary, general or special, we are treated to stories of dirty tricks, underhanded tactics, and outright sabotage in the name of winning a public office.
Then the winners somehow expect the public to forget everything they’ve seen and heard for the past six months and trust them as honorable, fair-minded servants of the people.
This explains pretty much everything wrong with local politics: the feeling of voter apathy, the general distrust of elected officials, and the pathetic 15 to 18 percent voter turnout numbers we’re used to seeing.
We, the long-suffering public, are expected to wade through a knee-deep quagmire of lies, corruption, and stupidity to arrive upon a candidate who can move this city, and this country forward without succumbing to the temptation of greed and corruption themselves.
It’s not easy, and it’s not pretty, but once in a while, the good guys actually win.
There are several examples, but I’ll just cite a couple for now.
State Rep. Jim Roebuck, who has quietly led West Philly’s 188th District for more than 25 years, suddenly found himself in a dogfight for his seat with Fatimah Muhammad, a 27-year old neophyte with lots of youthful enthusiasm, and an equal amount of youthful naiveté.
Ms. Muhammad received about $25,000 for her campaign coffers from Students First PA, the pro-voucher group who spent a fortune bankrolling the campaigns of local politicians willing to sign on to the school voucher philosophy.
Strongly worded campaign literature floated around the district painting the incumbent Roebuck as an anti-child, anti-education dinosaur because of his opposition to school vouchers. While Muhammad denied any connection to the literature, and in fact stated in a Tribune editorial board meeting that she wouldn’t vote for the voucher bill as it is presently written, the association stuck.
Roebuck won his seat, and Muhammad has presumably been left to ponder the consequence of taking large sums of cash from single-issue contributors. That money isn’t free, folks, and you’re nuts if you think they don’t want something for it. Deviate from the script, and bad things happen.
Up in North Philly’s 197th District, Jewel Williams, the 27-year old daughter of newly elected Sheriff Jewell Williams, ran for the state rep seat he held for years. She didn’t campaign much, didn’t work to get her name out there much, and didn’t do much to quiet the increasing number of voices complaining that she was looking for a free ride by cashing in on her father’s familiar name.
It’s a cynical idea, and one both her and her father should have worked hard to quash. Philadelphians have voted for the offspring of famous politicians before: Goode, Rizzo, Williams, and Green come to mind, but it’s usually a fact that the offspring makes a special effort to be their own person, to prove that they are much more than just ‘whats-his-name’s kid.’
If I were to leave my job tomorrow, I would not attempt to install my 22-year old daughter as city editor of the Tribune. While I love her more than anyone on earth, I also recognize that she is completely unqualified to run a newsroom. To ignore that fact would be an insult to my colleagues, and to our readers.
To their credit, the voters of the 197th didn’t fall for the old okey doke. They elected J.P. Miranda, who is also very young, but brings with him a wealth of experience as a legislative aide and community organizer.
In my South Philly neighborhood, state House candidate Damon Roberts faced a much more dangerous opponent than Jordan Harris, who beat him out for the 186th seat vacated by Kenyatta Johnson – his own campaign staff.
Apparently, Roberts was attempting to pay his workers their promised $100 each by check - already a bad idea - when he then ran out of checks. As you can imagine, it got ugly. So ugly, in fact, that Roberts had to call the police to protect him from his own workers.
Let this week’s election serve as a cautionary tale for future office seekers: be careful whose money you take, have an actual platform to run on, and most importantly – make sure you have the cash on hand to pay up on Election Day.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
City Council President Darrell Clarke’s head is full of ideas, and he just wants to get on with it already.
“I have a sense of urgency,” Clarke said, as he reflected on his first few months as president. “I’ve got to do stuff. I’ve got municipal marketing. I’ve got a development district. And, the other members too, we’ve got projects.”
Some of his ideas — like municipal marketing, selling advertising space on city property — have been controversial. But, Clarke, at a recent Tribune editorial board meeting, said it's time for city government to begin looking at fresh ways to generate revenue.
He’s going to keep throwing out ideas until he’s solved the problem.
Clarke has been portrayed as something of a sphinx – quiet, diligent, a man who worked best behind the scenes. That’s pretty much how he’s operated since being first elected to council in 1999. He held a leadership role, majority whip, but it was one that allowed him to remain in the shadows.
That’s impossible as council president. Yet, his tendency to shun the spotlight is evident in his leadership style.
“I guess I’m decentralizing the council president’s authority. I think it’s been very helpful, and I think it’s been good for the members,” he said.
Already the tenor of council has changed.
For the first time, a council president, who has traditionally exercised great authority in what legislation moves, when and who on council is involved, has delegated quite a bit of that authority.
“I think I’ve tried to be fair,” he said. “Every council person chairs a committee, which is unprecedented.”
As an example, he pointed to Councilman David Oh, a freshman and a Republican, two strikes against him under traditional council leadership, but Clarke has put in him charge of the Committee on Global Opportunities.
“He’s supposed to be chairing that committee,” Clarke said.
As president, he also expects every member to pull his or her weight.
“Don’t expect me to do the follow up,” he said. “You do the follow up and make sure the legislation gets enacted properly. They love it.”
Clarke recognizes that to get some of his ideas put in place he’ll have to collaborate even more – primarily with Mayor Michael Nutter.
“The reality is that the legislative branch of government cannot implement programs. That is, to a large degree, some of the frustration that a legislator suffers. Because at the end of the day, you can have nine million great ideas, but if the mayor chooses not to implement it that’s all it is, an idea,” he said.
The relationship between the two men – often acrimonious – is evolving.
“To be determined,” was how Clarke described it.
He stepped into the city’s top legislative job in January during a period that was deceptively quiet. Council, now knee-deep in budget hearings that are convoluted with concerns over a move to a property tax system based on full property values, and this week’s bombshell about the school district’s budget, is wrestling with issues that will shape the city’s long-term future.
Critics worried that the influence of his political mentor, former Mayor John F. Street, would be too evident.
Nutter campaigned vigorously behind the scenes against Clarke’s election to the presidency. The mayor backed former Majority Leader Marian Tasco.
Clarke doesn’t seem to hold a grudges.
He joked about Tasco’s recent participation in Dancing with the Philadelphia Stars, a charity dance contest Tasco won.
“It was a little bit rigged,” he said laughing.
As far as Nutter is concerned, Clarke admits that for progress to be made the two men will have to collaborate. The city made little progress under Mayor Bill Green, who was constantly at odds with council, he said. W. Wilson Goode had a better relationship with council but the city was broke at the time. Ed Rendell, during his tenure as mayor, managed to work well with Council President John Street.
“Street sat down and said ‘this is what I want’ and Ed said ‘this is what I want’ - they worked a deal and stuff happened,” said Clarke.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen.
In any event, Clarke now has a greater respect for former Council President Anna C. Verna, who steered council from 1999 to 2012.
“Every day I think about Anna Verna with a newfound respect,” he said, adding that he hoped he could be an example for his colleagues. “We’ve been given a significant opportunity and responsibility — and we need to treat it as such.”
On the eve of last Tuesday’s presidential election, Selma James, an internationally respected activist who lives in London, offered some insights bound to anger the Obama-hero-worship circles awash in American Black communities.
“Obama has disappointed us so much, but he has a second chance and we will not leave it up to him,” James said before she delivered an address in Center City last Monday evening around her latest book “Sex, Race and Class,” featuring a collection of writings by this widow of famed Caribbean author/intellectual/activist CLR James.
One area that President Obama and America’s political/power elites cannot ignore any longer, James said during an interview, is America’s alarming and growing rates of poverty.
“The U.S. has more poverty than any industrialized country,” she said about the nation where she was born in 1930 but left for life in England a quarter-century later.
“If we don’t address poverty we will be suicidal. Suicidal greed got the U.S. into this economic mess,” James said. “Remember that Nelson Mandela said that poverty is made by man and can be stopped by man.”
No, James isn’t blaming President Obama for causing poverty or exacerbating it, as his Republican presidential challengers fraudulently did in calling him the “food stamp president.”
However, James and others are rightly noting that as president, Obama has a responsibility to address dire issues confronting his country and too many of its citizens.
Those issues include poverty (particularly the obscene numbers of children living in poverty), structural joblessness, unjust mass imprisonment, urban decay, climate change and a host of other issues brushed aside by the body politic for too many years.
As a Black man who made history in the presidential campaign arena noted, “…whenever a government fails to secure for all its citizens that which it guarantees, such a government is nearing dangerous ground..” with such “neglect” becoming like the “cancer” that will continue to grow and spread.
This accurate yet frequently ignored observation on the role of government came from the first Black man nominated by a political party to run for the U.S. presidency…not Barack Obama, nominated by the Democratic Party in 2008, but George Edwin Taylor, nominated by the National Liberty Party in 1904.
Holding elected officials accountable is a duty of citizens in a democracy.
But too many Blacks have skirted this duty during the presidency of Barack Obama, giving him a pass on misplaced contentions thathe is too busy to attend to matters that have historically topped the agenda consistently advanced by Blacks.
This notion that Blacks have to devise an ‘agenda’ to present to President Obama is reminiscent of responses to disappointments during the first term of Philadelphia’s first Black mayor, W. Wilson Goode Sr.
It wasn’t plausible in the 1980s to assert that Goode didn’t know that the citizens who overwhelmingly supported his election wanted an end to racially discriminatory police brutality.
And, it’s not plausible in the 21st century to assert that President Obama doesn’t know that addressing urban violence and unemployment are important to those who helped elect him – twice.
Holding the U.S. president accountable does not diminish the history-making or role-modeling stature of Barack Obama.
But failing to hold any U.S. president accountable does diminish the moral authority Blacks have historically exerted in attempting to make America deliver on its constitutional promises.
As Bruce A. Dixon noted in a perceptive post-election commentary last week, Black America has lost its moral compass.
“We used to know right from wrong and have the courage to stand. In the era of Obama, we have lost it. We’ll need to fight to get it back,” said Dixon, managing editor at Black Agenda Report.
This problem of losing the ‘moral compass’ is not just a Black problem. I t is a fundamental problem with America.
And the source of this problem is that Americans believe the myths we concoct about ourselves just as others around the world believe the myths America projects about itself.
“One problem I have been having for decades is that many people here believe the myth of the U.S. as the ‘panacea’ of democratic order, which is that they cannot believe their ears with some of the things that people like Romney are saying,” said Berlin, Germany resident George Pumphrey, who grew up in the U.S. but left decades ago due to First Amendment-destroying harassment directed at dissidents like him.
For those in Black communities convinced of the inappropriateness of demanding accountability from President Obama for addressing urban issues like epidemic violence because he’s president-of-all-not-just-Blacks, consider the environmental degradation contributing to climate change.
Obama has championed clean coal’ since his 2008 candidacy, but one of the dirtiest deeds of the American coal industry is its extraction process called MTR – mountaintop removal, which literally blows up the tops of mountains.
Besides destroying irreplaceable mountain ranges, MTR destroys watersheds and creates serious health issues like higher cancer rates and birth defects in the MTR sites, now concentrated in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
This president needs to stop the disastrous MTR, but hasn’t.
Issues like MTR contributing to climate change problems like the recent superstorm Sandy are issues impacting all Americans.
And as London activist Selma James noted, “Sandy tells us so much. Nature is rebelling, reacting to what man is doing.”
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.