Thursday, November 23, 2017
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: Yeshitela should work with St. Petersburg mural committee

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You have to have a grudging sympathy for St. Petersburg's self-proclaimed civil rights icon, Omali Yeshitela.

For more than 50 years, the now 74-year-old Yeshitela has stomped his feet and marched and railed against all manner of racial injustices — some very real, others very imagined. As curmudgeons go, Yeshitela makes Ebenezer Scrooge look gentle.

But now he has a problem. After a lifetime of speechifying and demonstrating, he's been asked to actually help solve a problem. Uh-oh.

In 1966, a 24-year-old Yeshitela, who then went by the name Joe Waller, stormed into St. Petersburg City Hall and ripped off a wall a blatantly racist mural that depicted caricatures of blacks entertaining white revelers on a beach.

By any standard, Yeshitela's actions that day were in the best traditions of nonviolent civil disobedience. St. Petersburg was a different city then. It took courage for Yeshitela to do what he did. He wound up serving 2 1/2 years in prison for merely destroying a bigoted mural that happened to be public property. It could just as easily have been a death penalty, too.

Eventually, Yeshitela created the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, which has been a consistent presence on racial issues.

Things were going splendidly for Yeshitela, who has become something of a gray eminence among the Uhurus. And then St. Petersburg's City Hall Stairwell Mural Public Art Project Committee had to spoil everything for Yeshitela by asking him for help. No good would come from this. And it didn't.

At issue is how and when the committee reached out to Yeshitela.

Committee members said they invited Yeshitela to a planning meeting in June. Yeshitela never showed up. Then they sent a more formal invitation on June 29 to attend a subsequent meeting. He didn't show up for that one, either.

On July 7, the committee invited Yeshitela to attend another meeting. A Uhuru spokesman said the gesture was an "insult."

For his part, Yeshitela said, "This whole process is a lie." He has argued the committee already has determined what will replace the racist mural and that if anything, he alone should be the one to decide what should hang in the stairwell. But how does he know that if he won't show up?

"I'm the original art critic," Yeshitela said.

Could the invitation process have gone a bit smoother? Sure. Perhaps the committee could have arrived at the Uhuru headquarters with a gilt-edged invitation presented on a silver platter, while the mayor, City Council and the mural committee knelt.

Fair enough.

On the other hand, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and emerged urging peaceful rapprochement among all his countrymen.

And Yeshitela refuses to engage in a public discourse over the selection of a piece of art over a petty, contrived dispute over how he was invited to participate on the committee?

Perhaps Yeshitela fears that to sit down with the mural committee would undermine his radical bona fides among his more youthful, and, ahem, exuberant disciples.

Instead he stays away because not enough bowing and scraping accompanied the invitation to engage in a gesture of proactive citizenship.

It is easy to stay away. It is easy to dismiss the work of the committee members who should be given the benefit of the doubt they are simply trying to fulfill a civic duty.

But as the 50th anniversary of Yeshitela's noble act of civil disobedience draws near this December, isn't it time for the grand old Uhuru to come to the table and be a partner rather than a pouter?

You might argue reconciliation is an art form unto itself.

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