By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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The Stable was a favorite among a clique of black politicians. Miami Commissioner Art Teele was known to sidle up to the bar now and then. Back in 1999 Billy Hardemon, aide to former county Commissioner James Burke, and San Francisco businessman Calvin Grigsby would sip while discussing legal strategy for their upcoming public-corruption trial. (Both were acquitted.) “It was the black Cheers,” says Hardemon, now chairman of the nonprofit Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation. “There aren't that many African-American-owned lounges where you feel safe and comfortable.”
The Stable was to the black community what Duffy's Tavern or the Grove's old Taurus have been to white communities: unpretentious, time-tested emblems of their neighborhoods.
All that changed Sunday, September 24. Between 4:15 and 4:30 a.m., while King was closing the bar, two masked gunmen pushed their way past a patron and some employees and leveled a shotgun at the proprietor's head. As King reached for a pistol police say he was carrying, one of the gunmen pulled the trigger. King was killed instantly. He was 48 years old. The gunmen fled in a waiting champagne-color car without taking any money.
Police are investigating the murder as a possible robbery gone awry. One witness told homicide detectives the assailants demanded to know the location of the safe. But friends and employees suspect something else was at work. King, who brooked no unruliness in or around his operation, had been lobbying police to crack down on drug dealers staking out nearby street corners. He even wrote to the Neighborhood Enhancement Team office last December asking for help, complaining that the dealers were approaching his customers. “He didn't tolerate any foolishness on his premises,” Det. Emiliano Tamayo says. “He told you exactly how he felt.” Indeed patrons knew King as someone who wouldn't sanction drugs in his place. “He ran that place tight,” recalls one regular. “One night he smelled someone smoking reefer in there and he shut off the music and announced that whoever it was better stop.”
That approach, some suspect, may have been his downfall. “By trying to keep the place clean, he rubbed some people the wrong way,” says another long-time customer. Some believe the murder was revenge for an earlier affront. Against whom, they don't know.
The bar has been closed since the shooting. When it will reopen is not known.
For all his gruffness, King labored to create a safe haven in an often unsafe world. He took over management of his family's bar about three years ago and put everything he had into remodeling, according to his wife Arlene. “He did whatever he had to in order to protect his place,” she says. “He invested everything into it. He wanted it to be really, really nice, a place people where would feel safe.” The bathrooms were redone. The floors were newly tiled. The gated parking lot was paved.
Fights were extremely rare and customarily broken up by King himself. Weekends were crowded. The jukebox, linked to five speakers, played the kind of music that led more to nostalgic musings and a slow dance than out-of-control hooting and hollering. “I go for the Seventies and Sixties soul and blues,” he once told New Times, which awarded the Stable Best Jukebox in its 2000 “Best of Miami” issue. “I speak to what I am. My culture. I don't go for no Spanish music. No hip-hop. No rock.” It was the kind of place where you could buy a bottle of liquor from behind the bar, and if you didn't finish it that night, the barmaid would drape a tag with your name around the neck and keep it waiting for your return. If you were the most regular of regulars, you might even have a drink named after you.
The high esteem in which King was held evidenced itself during his September 30 funeral at Bethel Baptist Church in Richmond Heights where, Arlene says, hundreds of people showed up. He leaves behind not only his wife but four children, ages 12 to 27. As Ruth Brown herself may have crooned, it's hard to find a good man.