By Madeline Baro Diaz | Sun Sentinel
When the NAACP is host to its 94th annual gathering this week in Miami Beach, civic and political leaders in Miami-Dade County are hoping it will finally put to rest one of the most troubling periods in South Florida history—a 1990 snub of South African leader Nelson Mandela that outraged the black community in Miami and across the nation and kept black visitors away for years.
Mandela was touring the United States after his release from a South African prison where he was held for more than 27 years for opposing apartheid. Although he received a hero’s welcome in most cities, when he landed in Miami-Dade, Cuban-American politicians in Miami refused to officially welcome him. Hundreds of protesters, led by Cuban-Americans, also spoke out against Mandela’s support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The incident reminded many in the black community of years of inequality for blacks in Miami. It also sparked a three-year black tourism boycott of Miami-Dade that was resolved only when the county agreed in 1993 to a series of initiatives to increase the black community’s participation in business and tourism. One of the keys was a $10 million subsidy provided by Miami Beach for the county’s first black-owned hotel, the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza, developed by R. Donahue Peebles’ Atlantic Development Corp.
Local leaders say the arrival of the national convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will show how the community has changed. At least they hope so, as that could help the county lure a greater share of the $35 billion a year that blacks spend on travel.
“For us this is much more than just a convention,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. “For us, it is also a turning point from one of the saddest chapters of this county.”
The NAACP convention, which begins on Saturday, is the first in South Florida since 1980. It is expected to draw presidential candidates and include the organization’s first-ever meeting exploring the relationship between African-Americans and the Caribbean community.
Other activities planned include a golf tournament that is counting Alonzo Mourning and other celebrities among its participants. More than 10,000 people are expected to attend.
“We are very much looking forward to being in Miami Beach,” said Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP. “We’ve had a good reception from city and county officials.”
Proposed resolutions at this convention include a call for a moratorium on “high stakes” testing, such as the FCAT, until inequities in education are eliminated and urging the United States to stop blocking economic aid to Haiti. Other proposals call for an end to the federal government’s policy of detaining Haitian refugees who arrive here and its repatriation of most of them—while Cubans who make it to U.S. soil are generally allowed to stay.
A major concern is addressing inequities in education for black and minority students, particularly as the NAACP gears up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark school desegregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education.
“Hot-button” issues such as affirmative action will likely spark lively discussions, said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida chapter of the NAACP. The organization’s priority, she said, is trying to make sure that the civil rights gains that have been made will not be rolled back.
“We have an opportunity to keep the doors from closing, and yet we see the doors closing on us,” Nweze said. “We’ve got a real uphill battle in this organization as we meet this summer in terms of how we begin to shape and look at those issues.”
The choice of Miami Beach as the 2003 destination for the NAACP conference caused controversy in 2001 when Bishop Victor T. Curry, then head of the Miami-Dade chapter, stepped down after the NAACP’s national leadership tried to censure him. Curry had questioned whether the county deserved the convention in light of alleged police brutality against black men and the lack of economic, political and social progress for the county’s black residents.
`A lot to be done’
Brad Brown, who replaced Curry, agrees that Miami-Dade’s black community still has a long way to go in terms of progress.
“Certainly, we’ve got a lot of issues here in Miami,” Brown said. “While there has been visible improvement in the hotel industry on Miami Beach ... there’s still a lot to be done.”
Brown noted, however, that in most large U.S. cities, blacks also face discrimination and lack of economic opportunity. After the hotel opened last year, H.T. Smith, a prominent attorney who helped lead the boycott, said the Royal Palm could help open doors for black business people in Miami Beach, a key part of Florida’s $20 billion tourism industry that has denied blacks a share of its economic fortunes.
“The black community in America has a tremendous economic engine,” Smith said then. “We need to get into the engine room and drive the train of black travel-related dollars around and around in our community and create new jobs, new businesses, new relationships and most importantly, new wealth.”
Although Peebles’ hotel is up and running and black tourism is increasing—as many as 200,000 blacks have flocked to Miami Beach for the past three Memorial Day weekends, for example—ethnic and racial tensions persist.
Cuban-Americans and African-Americans continue to find themselves at odds over issues, divisions that were made evident last year when NAACP leaders visited Cuba on a trade and goodwill mission. Like many other black American leaders, the NAACP officials praised Cuba for the strides it has made for its black citizens in creating an integrated Cuban society.
Many anti-Castro Cuban exiles, however, dispute the contention that racism has been largely eradicated in Cuba. During the NAACP convention, a group of Cuban-Americans are planning a news conference to present a document on human rights abuses in Cuba written by activists in Cuba. Miami human rights activist Ana Maria Lamar said the document will include the fact that three black men were recently executed for hijacking a boat in Cuba and attempting to take it to the United States.
“We are asking [the NAACP] for just one thing—solidarity,” Lamar said.
Much of the NAACP’s attention, however, will be on Miami-Dade, where Brown notes much has changed since Mandela’s visit more than a decade ago.
Penelas said that if Mandela were to visit today, the former South African president—who belatedly received honors from Miami and Miami Beach—would get the reception that a man of his stature deserves.
“The community has matured,” Penelas said. “I hope that, No. 1, [the convention] is successful and that it will serve as a turning point from that sad, sad, chapter.”
Staff Writer Gregory Lewis contributed to this report.