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Support builds for pardon

Community activist Omali Yeshitela petitions state clemency officials. He has 85 letters backing him.

A legislator, a college dean, a City Council member _ even a judge _ all have expressed support for pardoning Omali Yeshitela for his act of civil disobedience more than 30 years ago.

A state clemency official confirmed Friday that her office has received an application from Yeshitela, whose ripping down of a controversial City Hall mural in 1966 became a local civil rights legend.

Yeshitela, now 58, was convicted of grand larceny and spent a year and a half in state prison. He has since become one of St. Petersburg's most influential community activists. But his citizenship rights were never restored.

Pinellas Circuit Judge David Seth Walker, the last judge assigned to Yeshitela's case as it worked its way through the appeals process in the early '70s, said it would be improper for him to initiate contact on Yeshitela's behalf. But he sent a message to state clemency officials that, if asked, he would be happy to offer an opinion.

Responding to a request from the Times, Walker said he agreed with the petition. A person who committed the same act today would likely be sentenced to probation and a formal finding of guilt would be withheld, the judge explained.

"The man served 18 months in prison. I think he has more than paid the price for his actions, and I have no objection to the commission granting his request," Walker said.

Pardons can be granted only by the governor and at least three members of the state Cabinet. But first comes an investigation by the Florida Parole Commission. The process often takes a year, depending on the complexity of the case and the number of applications already pending, said state clemency coordinator Janet Keels.

A common theme in the letters supporting Yeshitela is that his attack on the mural was a brave act of civil disobedience _ in the same league as other protests of the 1950s and '60s, which sometimes landed other civil rights activists in jail.

"I can assure you that this mural was very demeaning, insulting and offensive to the African-American community (as well as to many in the community as a whole) in St. Petersburg," wrote State Rep. Rudy Bradley, R-St. Petersburg. "In my opinion, the action that Omali Yeshitela took was not criminal at all; rather it was a courageous stand taken by one person to uphold the dignity and honor of an entire community."

Yeshitela's group at the time, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, had asked the mayor to remove the Depression-era mural, whose exaggerated caricatures of black minstrels entertaining white picnickers at the beach was regarded by many as racially demeaning.

When the mayor refused, Yeshitela's group held a news conference on the City Hall steps. He said later that he hadn't planned on removing the mural, but he acted impulsively after police and other onlookers made fun of an elderly black woman's speech. He was arrested as he and several other young men dragged the mural down the street, several blocks away.

The petition is accompanied by 85 letters from citizens and community leaders such as Bradley and City Council member Rene Flowers. Other letters came from such notables as William Heller, dean of the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus, who praised the constructive role that Yeshitela has played in community-building across the political spectrum; local Realtor Lou Brown, who said Yeshitela's courage "helped to spark a movement" for full democratic rights among St. Petersburg's African-Americans; and Bishop Preston D.H. Leonard of Christ Gospel Church.

"Omali Yeshitela has been an outstanding member of this community since his return," Bishop Leonard wrote. "Many good things have happened, and many bad things were averted because of his leadership."