Big Mouth, Big Trouble

The Rev. Willie Sims: Street cred collides with bureaucratic sensibilities
Steve Satterwhite

The NAACP's national convention this past week in Miami Beach was a big deal. It's an honor that such a prestigious national organization chose us for its annual gathering spot. It makes sense, too. All our racial strife aside, diversity isn't just a politically correct buzzword here; it's a hot, sweaty, funky lifestyle. Hell, we're so diverse the head of our local NAACP chapter is a white guy!

The NAACP's visit was also symbolic, a declared truce after the black boycott of Miami, which was the result of county leaders snubbing Nelson Mandela during a 1990 visit because the South African Nobel laureate once thanked Fidel Castro for his support.

It makes sense, then, that civic leaders at all levels wanted to put our best image forward in order to show how enlightened we are -- a community of progress, openness, tolerance.

Meet Rev. Willie Sims, the county's point man for that effort. Sims, special projects director for the county's Community Relations Board (CRB), heads a team of volunteer "goodwill ambassadors" who hit the streets during big events, protests, volatile trial verdicts, or full-blown riots to ease tensions. In this case, they were out to make sure the NAACP delegates felt welcome. But Sims is a strange choice for that job. He has repeatedly shown that his toilet tongue causes more turmoil than calm.

As I write this, the convention is just getting under way, and I'm hoping Sims doesn't do something stupid. Especially since his epithet-laced speech and lewd comments to women so outraged goodwill ambassadors two months ago during the Memorial Day weekend on South Beach that he was yanked from the program, ordered into counseling, and accused of scaring away volunteers.

Sims is a fiery Baptist preacher whose sermons routinely appear to contradict the work he does as a community peacemaker for the CRB. Some might even say he makes for an unlikely preacher, a former gang member with a four-decade-old conviction for attempted rape. But his supporters say his strength is that he can speak the language of the streets -- though perhaps a little too fluently.

In 1991 Sims implored his congregants to boycott businesses in Miami because of the Mandela snub, adding angrily that he felt like a foreigner in his own town because of all the Spanish spoken here. County Manager Joaquin Aviño suspended Sims for three days, contending that he'd inflamed racial and ethnic tensions while employed to ease those very tensions. Sims sued, charging that his First Amendment rights to free speech had been violated. But a federal appeals court tore into the reverend, stating in its decision: "The First Amendment does not require that Sims be allowed to continue his weekday employment drenching the fires of racial animosity for the department, while he fans those flames during his weekend sermons."

In 2000 Sims yelled at a CRB board member during a meeting: "Kiss my ass!" He was yanked from his job but reinstated after supporters in the black clergy protested.

This year Sims outdid himself.

On May 27, Deborah Reed, a volunteer with the goodwill ambassadors program, announced she was quitting because of Sims. In an e-mail sent to Larry Capp, executive director of the CRB, Reed asserted that Sims had been exceptionally harsh during an organizational meeting for the Memorial Day weekend. "I have tolerated the language that Mr. Sims uses for the last time," she wrote. "He looked at the back of the room and made some awful remarks!!! The one that really disgusted and angered me was the statement: Get the F--K out of here!!!!!! I am not going to tolerate this type of language anymore. As far as I am concerned, I no longer consider myself a goodwill ambassador. I'm sorry but I cannot adhere to conduct of this nature."

An alarmed Capp e-mailed Gene Hitchens, community relations assistant, the same day. "Gene, were you present during this incident? Please call me regarding this episode when you get this message."

Hitchens responded: "Sims used so much foul language during this event that she needs to be more specific as to the time of day. Be prepared for other reports complaining about the way ambassadors felt they were talked to in the gathering area."

Capp asked Sims to respond. The clergyman apologized to both Capp and Reed, saying he wasn't directing his comments at her directly, he just got carried away. On May 29 Capp followed up with a harsh reprimand, blaming Sims for a drop in volunteer participation. "I attribute this in large measure to your unacceptable behavior," Capp wrote. "This refers to your use of profanity as well as inappropriate remarks of a sexual nature that you have directed to our female volunteers." Capp removed Sims as the supervisor of the ambassador program, prevented him from work-related out-of-town travel for two months, and ordered him to undergo counseling.

On June 2, Sims huffily tried to defend himself in an e-mail titled "Rebuttal to Accusations." In sum, he claimed he was just trying to keep it real, dawg. "As the director I was aware of the type of crowd that my volunteers would be confronted with. The 'Hip-Hop Generation' uses a lot of profane language. I brought this to the attention of all the Goodwill Ambassadors. I did not want them to get intimidated when they heard this language....

"I don't think I would be as effective as I am on the streets if I was a 'Holier than thou type of preacher.' I was recruited to work for the county by [former assistant county manager] Mr. Dewey Knight in 1980 on the heels of the McDuffie riots. He said that the county needed someone who was familiar with the streets and spoke their language.... This was my claim to fame ... and I find it strange now that I am being reprimanded for use of profane language while the Goodwill Ambassadors were activated." He also hurled accusations that Hitchens was responsible for the drop in volunteer turnout because he allegedly deleted names from a contact list. "Perhaps you were given wrong information from Gene Hitchens, who was on a personal attack against me in an effort to elevate himself."

Sims concluded: "If Gene Hitchens feel that he want to head the Goodwill Ambassadors then let him. However don't destroy my integrity by placing a written reprimand in my personnel file."

Far from persuading his boss to back off, Sims's letter provoked Capp to unleash a scorching "Memorandum" the next day: "First of all, this missive was unnecessary since we are not dealing with 'accusations.' In your previous memo you admitted to your use of profanity. Your usage was not associated with any training exercise. Secondly ... several people verified your use of profanity and your inappropriate sexually oriented remarks towards females.... It is inappropriate for you to focus on Ms. Reed and Mr. Hitchens. They were not alone in confirming your misbehaviors. Many people shared the opinion that your behaviors discouraged participation by some in the Goodwill Ambassadors program.

"Lastly, your use of profanity has often occurred in 'non-street' settings and it has often been inappropriate in the past. It has been offensive to board members, staff, and volunteers. It cannot be justified. Your 'integrity' is not destroyed by the placement of another written reprimand in your file. You have amassed several negative documents in your personnel file over many years. In my opinion, your credibility and integrity are destroyed by your own actions, particularly since you use the title of 'Reverend' in front of your name.

"The reprimand and all of its sanctions and recommendations still stands. I hope that you can move past this and make significant contributions to the [office of community relations] in the future."

But something miraculous happened. By the time the NAACP event arrived, Capp had relented and allowed Sims to lead the volunteer effort once again. "Mr. Sims is still very much involved in the ambassador program," Capp says. "Sims will be there, heading up the team."

Even Reed has forgiven the potty-mouthed preacher and rejoined as a volunteer.

Which goes to show just how tolerant we really are down here.

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