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Dick Greco apologizes for comparing race riot to panty raid

TAMPA — Former Mayor Dick Greco is apologizing for likening Tampa's race riots of the late 1960s to a panty raid.

The comparison disturbed some black residents, and Greco says he understands why.

"They had every right to take offense to that," Greco said during a candidates forum Thursday night sponsored by Creative Loafing. "It's one of the dumbest things I've ever (said) in my life."

On Friday, Greco said he had called leaders of the Hillsborough County NAACP about the gaffe.

"I apologized about the stupid remark I made that didn't make any sense because I didn't finish my chain of thought," he said.

During a St. Petersburg Times-Bay News 9 debate televised Tuesday night, Greco compared the city's race riots to the lingerie-stealing pranks once popular on college campuses. People could have hurt one another during the riots, he said, but didn't.

"It was more like a panty raid-type thing," Greco said during the live broadcast.

Asked about the remark a few minutes after the debate ended, Greco said he was referring to the June 1967 disturbances that followed the death of a 19-year-old African-American man who was shot by police while running from the scene of a robbery.

For three days after Martin Chambers' death, crowds threw rocks and bricks at police cars, and more than a dozen vacant homes in Ybor City were set on fire, the St. Petersburg Times reported at the time.

In response, police called in more than 1,000 officers from Hillsborough and Pinellas, many of them armed with shotguns bristling with fixed bayonets. National Guardsmen stood by, some in Jeeps armed with mounted machine guns.

The riots ended after officers agreed to withdraw in exchange for a promise from black leaders that the trouble would stop. Former Blake High School coach Jim Williams was summoned from a college coaching job in Louisiana to calm teenagers. Scores of black teens donned hard hats hastily painted white and took to the streets in a "youth patrol" to keep the peace.

Asked on the day after the debate to elaborate on his panty raid comment, Greco said he might have been talking about the riots of 1967, which took place a few months before he was elected mayor, or those of 1968, which came after he took office, but "What difference does it make?"

Greco said he was referring to the way both panty raids and the civil disturbances of the 1960s started on college campuses and spread across the country like "a fad."

On Friday, Greco, 77, said he was definitely referring to the March 1968 unrest. News accounts describe how the newly elected Greco patrolled trouble spots in an effort to calm residents after the arrest of a black woman on a drunkenness charge and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At one point, an estimated 200 people took to the streets shouting and throwing bottles. Looters smashed into a pawnshop and stole television sets, a sewing machine, clothes and shoes.

With a few small fires set, people shooting into the air and about 75 officers massing for a response, Greco recalled Friday that he and a few friends walked onto Central Avenue. He said he climbed onto a flower pot in front of the Pyramid Lounge and invited the rioters to his office so everyone could work out whatever the problem was.

Even during the disturbances, Greco added, "There wasn't a hatred between black and white."

Greco said Friday the 1967 riot was "not the event I was describing" during the televised debate, but he couldn't be more specific Tuesday night because he had only 30 seconds to respond to a question about race relations in Tampa.

Hillsborough NAACP president Carolyn Collins said Greco called her to explain his remark.

"If it wasn't what he meant to say he has the right to clear it up," she said, adding that everyone misspeaks occasionally. "We all need to be careful before we speak."

But she also said there's "no similarity" between a panty raid and a riot.

"In my mind and in the NAACP's mind you never liken a college panty raid to a riot," Collins said.

Samuel Wright Sr., the NAACP's first vice president, said he traded messages with Greco and talked to several of his supporters about the remark.

"I don't believe he meant any ill will when he made that comment," Wright said Friday. "It perhaps just didn't come off that well. I do understand that he did show some remorse in terms of what was said and how it came across. I think that's all he could do."

Greco also said, as he has before, that during his first terms in the mayor's office, from 1967 to 1974, he diversified the city's work force, hiring Tampa's first black firefighter, first black lawyer in the City Attorney's Office and others.

"Many things had to be corrected in those days that had been wrong for a long time, and I was the one who did it," he said. "We came a long, long, long way."

Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.

Dick Greco apologizes for comparing race riot to panty raid 02/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 10:26pm]
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