By Michael E. Miller
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I've been reading about this man in news clips and photos; he created a firestorm in 1949 and 1950, meriting scores of stories in the local and national press. And as I wait to be greeted, I half-expect to meet the 37-year-old Melvin J. Richard, crime-fighting crusader. A small man of 86 answers, deep lines in his high forehead, thin silver hair. Forty-nine years have passed in an instant. He laughs gleefully at my disappointment.
Fifty years ago Richard was known as a tenacious, uncompromising warrior -- the only person in South Florida to run for office on the bold promise to confront local gangsters who controlled illegal gambling. The man who almost single-handedly persuaded a U.S. Senate committee to hold public hearings on the way organized crime had corrupted the police and municipal government of Miami Beach and other South Florida cities.
Throughout his long life, Mel Richard has lived the courage of his convictions. His explanation is simple: "I've always had a feeling that things should be right, they should be honest, and they shouldn't be otherwise."
He learned early on what it meant to confront men more powerful than he, and he came to appreciate rare alliances with those who understood the principles he cherished. A student at the University of Florida law school in 1933, he wrote a column in the student-run Florida Alligator criticizing the editor of the Tampa Tribune. On February 15 of that year, Giuseppe Zangara, a suspected anarchist, had tried to assassinate president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt after a brief speech in Miami's Bayfront Park. His bullet missed FDR but hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who died from his wounds three weeks later. Every newspaper in the state demanded Zangara's hasty execution. The Tribune called for him to be boiled in oil. But Richard's column appealed for cooler heads. He suggested that Zangara was getting railroaded and, in fact, just might be insane.
Edwin Dart Lambright, the Tribune's editorial page editor, was incensed. And he was the chairman of the board of control that funded state universities. Lambright lambasted the school for allowing the column to run and threatened to withhold the school's operating money unless Richard was expelled. The president of the university begged Richard to apologize, but the law student stood his ground and refused. As a compromise, he was forbidden to write again for any student publication. The Alligator staff reacted by electing him editor, which prompted the university to padlock the paper's office. The Gainesville Sun then rode to the rescue and offered to print and distribute the Alligator for free.
Since then, plenty of Richard's enemies have hoped he'd just go away. But not only has he never given them the satisfaction, he's outlived most of them. He resists retirement even now. Each morning he goes to work at the South Bayshore Drive law firm Richard & Richard, which he founded but which his son Dennis now runs. Richard made one of his few concessions to age last year, when he gave up driving. These days a limo takes him back and forth to the office, or his wife Janet drives.
Richard grew up in Brooklyn and moved with his parents to Miami Beach in 1930. In 1934, law degree in hand, he opened a practice on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach, netting $120 his first year. Seven years later he was appointed a Miami Beach municipal judge. But after the start of World War II, he resigned his judgeship and joined the navy. Returning from the war in 1946, he took up private practice again. Though he was gone just three years, he was amazed at the changes: "I found there was a criminal syndicate running Miami Beach," he recalls. "If it was here before I left, I didn't know anything about it."
His first encounter with the syndicate was tame, he says. "I'd learned to play four-wall handball in the navy. It was a good game, and I went to the city commission to see if they'd build courts in Flamingo Park. I went, and they wouldn't listen to me. I couldn't even get anyone to make a motion."
In front of city hall, a stranger approached him. "He told me, 'I heard you asking about four-wall handball courts. I think it's a good idea.' I laughed. 'What can you do? They wouldn't even listen to me.' He said, 'I think I can exert some pressure.'" At the next council meeting, a motion was made and passed without dissent.
"I thought, Who was this guy?" says Richard.
Once he learned, he never played on those courts.
In 1947 Richard ran for a seat on the Miami Beach City Council, promising voters he'd see to it that bookie joints were shut down. "If the chief of police won't arrest them," he said, "then I'll do it myself till we get a new chief."