Since last fall's rioting and arson, the search has been on for answers to some of the city's deep-seated racial and economic troubles.
Amid state and federal attention, task force meetings, barbershop and coffee-table discussions, a question arose: Who will provide leadership to not only come up with solutions but also make them work?
Some have looked to city government; others have said the mayor and City Council don't have what it takes.
Many in the black community put hope in the Coalition of African American Leadership, formed of pastors, community leaders and activists to represent a wide range of views. Recently, though, the coalition has faced trouble, as members jockeyed over leadership of the group.
Sevell Brown, local head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has gone as far as to hold news conferences, asserting his right to be chairman and announcing that he holds the trademark to the coalition name.
Another activist, Omali Yeshitela, continued to hold meetings without Brown. That group, calling itself the coalition, still meets and is led by two other people.
The Times wanted to find out what the city's African-Americans identified as the problems facing the city and who they thought was up to the task of delivering solutions.
The newspaper discovered that many residents are looking to themselves, rather than any one person.
Nearly 40 percent of African-Americans polled could not name someone they thought could help solve the city's problems. Another 20 percent said should be up to residents themselves.
The results mirror a 1980 Times poll. In that one, 459 black adults were asked if there was one person who spoke on behalf of the city's black community: 39 percent were unable to name someone.
"One person can't resolve those issues. That has to be a collaborative process," said Evelyn Newman Phillips, a professor of anthropology studying the culture and politics of the city's black residents.
"I think the community is showing maturity in recognizing there is diversity in issues and many dimensions in which the people in the community have to deal," said Phillips, who teaches at Central Connecticut State University.
The poll, conducted this month for the Times, reached 402 African-American residents, some from all-black families, others from mixed families.
Participants were asked a series of questions, including how serious they thought the issue of race relations is in the city (66 percent said very serious) and which issues city leaders should set as priorities (jobs and economic development topped the list).
Other questions focused on whether respondents viewed particular people as leaders and whether they support the methods used by those individuals.
"Leaders start a lot of the problems," said one 24-year-old woman.
A 51-year-old man said average citizens know what they need. "It doesn't take the ministers and the teachers all the time."
Asked about individuals who could help solve the city's problems, 17 percent named members of the City Council and another 16 percent named religious leaders.
In another poll question, respondents were given 12 names and asked if they supported each person's "approach to addressing racial and economic problems in St. Petersburg."
City Council member Ernest Fillyau got the most support at 59 percent. His numbers were 10 percentage points ahead of council member David Welch, who polled second.
Fillyau also ranked highest when respondents were asked which person in the group "is doing the best job of representing St. Petersburg's African-American residents," though there was little statistical difference between him and Welch, who was second again.
Residents say he is caring, accessible, hard-working and sincere.
"With Ernest Fillyau, he stays in his community," said community activist Marva Dennard. "I don't care what goes on, you can guarantee that Ernest Fillyau is there."
Political consultant Mary Repper said she would not be surprised if Fillyau, 69, runs for another office after he finishes his second four-year council term in 1999.
"Everything I've ever heard about him has been good and positive," Repper said. "He must have struck a chord that most people agree with."
Still, Fillyau's strong poll standing does not mean that he is viewed as the spokesman or sole leader of the city's black residents. The days in which one person could hold such sway are gone, said the Rev. Mayjor Mason Walker, pastor of Moore's Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Leadership now is more issue-oriented, he said, with people deciding "who the leaders are depending on the issue," he said.
For instance, Walker thinks Brown, the SCLC leader, ranked near the top of the list _ fourth with 42 percent support _ because he has been a longtime activist in the city.
"Sevell has been on the front line when nobody else was there," Walker said. "He's taken the brunt on many issues."
Still, Walker said that with all of Brown's effort and time, "you would think he would be the elder statesman, but he's not."
That doesn't mean Brown has lost clout, Walker said, but more likely a healthy sign that black residents, like white residents, refuse to anoint any one person as a leader for all occasions.
Former Times columnist and editorial writer Peggy Peterman said the poll results were "quite exciting."
She said civil rights leaders in the 1960s taught that African-Americans would have to eventually rely less on leaders and more on themselves.
"It was a conscientious effort that the people would one day understand that the village has to take care of it own," she said.
Fillyau and Welch may be held in high regard because, as City Council members, they represent the entire city while others on the list, like religious leaders, represent smaller groups.
Respondents seemed to support that idea in comments made to interviewers. A 56-year-old woman said that since council members are elected, people expect them to speak for residents and bring up issues.
Another woman, 36, said, "They lead the city in making decisions for the communities."
People who named Mayor David Fischer as someone they looked to for leadership often said similar things.
One man, 43, said Fischer was elected to move the city in a positive direction and has the power to do so.
Lou Brown, a former co-chair of the Community Alliance, a biracial group that works for racial harmony in south Pinellas County, said he thinks the council members ended up at the top because they often appear on television.
"The power of being on TV is tremendous," Brown said. "Even though they are local cable and city shows, it's still very powerful. People think, "They must be leaders because here they are sitting in my living room.' "
Yeshitela, founder of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, got mixed reviews in the poll. Twenty-five percent of respondents supported his approach to solving racial and economic problems, while another 25 percent said they didn't.
Yeshitela said he thinks 25 is significant support, considering that his views are controversial. His Uhuru movement espouses revolutionary separatism, claiming blacks will be free only when they govern themselves.
"Twenty-five, I think, is very high given the message that I have, which is quite different from the other forces and is not supported by the traditional institutions in the community," he said.
Fischer had almost as high a negative rating as Yeshitela, with 24 percent of people saying they don't like how he is handling the city's racial and economic problems. The negative rating for others on the list was significantly lower.
When asked about the most important issues in the city, respondents named these as the top three: drugs, the way police treat black residents and the lack of job opportunities.
The priorities were the same across all age groups. Respondents generally spoke about these issues as they relate to young people, who may have more difficulties finding jobs and may more often be the target of police prejudice.
"We need to give young blacks something to do, something to look forward to," said one woman, 55. "They need jobs so they can get off welfare."
Thomas "Jet" Jackson, a recreation supervisor at the Wildwood Community Center, said two of the top issues _ jobs and drugs _ are closely linked. Drugs lure young people eager to make easy money when jobs are hard to find.
"The main issue that I hear is jobs and youth employment," Jackson said. "That's the key."
From Feb. 7 to Feb. 16, interviewers polled 402 African-American residents in St. Petersburg. The residents were chosen from 16 census tracts representing 86 percent of the city's African-American residents. The demographics of the sample group is representative of the demographics of the city's entire black community. The maximum sampling error was plus or minus 4.9 percent. The Times was identified as sponsor of the poll, which was conducted by Independent Market Research of Tampa.
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