T. Willard Fair is both provocative and irresistibly charming. The 68-year-old's handsome, fresh features might be those of a man 20 years younger. He dresses exquisitely; today he's wearing a fine black-and-white silk shirt, white pants, and matching black-and-white loafers, which -- even at the end of the day, as the sun begins to set through the windows of his Liberty City office -- retain a fine sheen of polish. He wears big, slightly funky glasses and sports a cleanly shaven head adorned with a cell phone earpiece. Faced with tough questions, he tends to take on a somber expression and a stern, rumbling voice. But invariably he slips back into a friendly, bantering tone and a mischievous grin. When he's saying something really controversial, the grin widens.
"The grand ruler of the KKK says he's against amnesty, oh boy," Fair says, leaning in and raising his eyebrows. "Oh boy, oh boy -- for the first time in his life, he's on the right side of an issue."
Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami, is a self-described civil rights leader, political independent, and "last of the black militants in the state of Florida." Three weeks ago he spoke against amnesty for illegal immigrants to a U.S. House committee. Fair was invited to testify thanks in part to an advertisement with his picture published in the Washington Post and other newspapers that called the proposed bill's amnesty for illegal workers a "slap in the face to black Americans."
T. Willard Fair
Though much has been written in Miami and elsewhere about Fair's testimony, nothing has addressed the backers of the ad, a group called the Coalition for the Future American Worker (CFAW). Heidi Beirich, deputy director of the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the United States, knows CFAW well. "That organization is 100 percent a front group for the Federation for American Immigration Reform [FAIR]," she asserts. "FAIR [is] paying for this entire project."
Beirich and her colleagues have been familiar with FAIR since it was cofounded in 1979 by a man named John Tanton, whom they call a racist and hate-monger. In 1988, memos written by Tanton to his colleagues in FAIR were leaked to the press. In them the FAIR cofounder referred to the "educability" -- or lack thereof -- of Hispanics, as well as their reproductive capacities: "Perhaps," he wrote in one note, "this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!" Although FAIR isn't technically a hate group, Beirich says, "We've always felt that FAIR came just up to the line."
For his part, T. Willard Fair -- a former Miami mayoral candidate -- cannot name a single member of the coalition that paid for the ad with his face in it. He says he has never met with anyone from the organization nor attended a single meeting. He collaborated on the project, he says, with an ad firm in New York. "I see myself as advertising an issue in partnership with the coalition, not as advertising for [them]."
But that, says black columnist and author Earl Ofari Hutchinson -- who also identifies the coalition sponsoring Fair's ad as a creation of FAIR -- is a delusion. Another FAIR spinoff, called Choose Black America, contacted Hutchinson in 2004. Hutchinson, who has voiced concerns over Hispanic immigration, says FAIR offered him a flight to D.C. and hotel accommodations if he agreed to be identified as a founding member of the anti-immigration group. He declined.
"I'm not casting aspersions on Mr. Fair -- I'm sure he's well intentioned and he has principled reasons for taking the position that he does," Hutchinson emphasizes. "But the bigger issue is an unholy alliance between a well-known black leader and others like him -- they do have a constituency and a following, they're not speaking in a glass dome -- and a very conservative, agenda-driven interest group.... Groups like FAIR have seen Mr. Fair as being a very useful pawn," Hutchinson says, "and of course they're going to shamelessly exploit him for all he's worth."
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Fair responds angrily to Hutchinson's statement. "That's an insult to my intelligence, that somebody could use me. They needed someone who looked like me to make the statement and I needed someone with the wherewithal to make the ad happen. So it was quid pro quo."
Fair maintains he represents the real black opinion, the truth that other black leaders are glossing over. "W.E.B. Dubois, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass -- they all came out strongly against immigration," Fair asserts. "Each time, four or five months after they went public with their opinion, they changed their opinion. And that's because they were being held hostage by the people contributing to their freedom movement -- Jews and Europeans, who supported the movement. And they made us feel guilty about being opposed to immigrants."
The National Urban League and the NAACP -- both of which support paths to citizenship for illegal workers -- have remained notably mum on Fair's stance. His reception has been even cooler around Miami, and it's no coincidence he hasn't placed the ad in the Herald. Fair says he's had speaking engagements canceled here and that he prefers not to speak about amnesty locally, anyway. "Why should I? There is no reason to address this issue locally," he says. "My next speaking engagement will be in Washington."
Outside Fair's office in Liberty City, some have a slightly less shrill opinion on the immigration bill. "What I say about it is, All of us are immigrants,'" says James Johnson, a kindly man in a checkered shirt and checkered pants who works as a chef at a nearby restaurant. Seated upon a picnic table in the parking lot of a corner grocery, Johnson sips a beer and muses: "We should learn to be forgiving. Because when God sends you to this earth, you come with nothing -- nothing is yours."