Hard Days for Ray

An animated, middle-age white guy strides into the jumbled offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on NW Seventh Avenue at 56th Street. Ray Fauntroy, president of the local chapter, and his assistant Bernie Meyers see him via their low-cost burglar alarm -- a mirror they've set up in the hall so they can view visitors while meeting in the conference room. He calls out a greeting as he wheels through several rooms, finally sticking his head into the conference room: "Just want to make sure everything is going okay," he says with a grin. They thank him for his concern, then he's gone.

Meyers, an Antiguan woman with big, expressive eyes frequently set off by a bright grin, casts an ironic glance at Fauntroy. The white man owns a good part of this particular block and he has already made a lowball offer on the SCLC building, which Fauntroy owns. "I will sell it if I have to, and this place will go right back to the ones like him who own everything else around here," the SCLC president says with uncharacteristic resignation.

The normally upbeat Fauntroy, a native of Washington, D.C., is explaining why everything is not "okay," why he is considering quitting a sixteen-year fight to raise the economic self-image of his corner of Liberty City. But he is continually interrupted and upstaged by his own story as it comes sweeping in through the SCLC's doors.

Fauntroy excuses himself to speak to a City of Miami police officer about an upcoming rally for security in the neighborhood. But he quickly forgets the topic and can be heard earnestly telling the officer about the latest break-in at SCLC's thrift store next door. Two weeks ago, just after Meyers had finally readied the shop for a post-Hurricane Andrew reopening, burglars cleaned out the best of the stock. They took everything from back-to-school clothes to used furniture and appliances. It really wasn't much different from all the other burglaries -- once there were three in a single weekend -- that have plagued the SCLC chapter since 1990, when Fauntroy moved into the three warehouse storefronts he bought with money from an accident settlement. But this time, acting on a tip from a neighbor, police arrested a couple with the loot. The suspects are well-known in the area. "I know them by sight. Everyone knows them," Fauntroy says, tight-lipped. And he vows to see them go to prison. "When you work like we have worked and have gone through what we have gone through, it can make you angry," he says. "These people come by and smile at you every day. We know crack is a problem, but they have had opportunities and we are just not going to let them use us."

The bitter tone isn't Fauntroy's style. A small man with proselytizing energy, he is a veteran of the often violent voter-registration drives of the Sixties, which were spearheaded by SCLC founder Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though he's no stranger to a tough fight, the latest burglary has forced Fauntroy to face the fact that his dream is dying. While he is unable to secure loans from the big banks outside the community, the very people he is trying to help are bleeding the SCLC to death. "I am very angry, very hurt," he admits. "But I know that this is the result of what has happened to our community and that we are getting blamed for it."

The most acute problem is crack cocaine. The drugs are supplied from the outside, Fauntroy notes, but money to fund his programs is not. He and Meyers do what they can, giving food and counseling to the addicts that drift in from the streets, but still his troubled constituents want more A and they aren't reluctant to take it. Fauntroy says there were 22 break-ins during the SCLC's first two years at its present location. After a yearlong lull, the thieves are up to speed again.

Not that Fauntroy hasn't tried to stop them.
When they busted through the seven storefront windows, he put up bars. When they broke the glass, reached through the bars, and pulled the clothing racks to the windows, he put up Plexiglas. Then they started on the roof, chopping a hole, tying together the plastic sheets used to cover leaks, and lowering themselves into the store. Rather than forcing the locks on the doors, the thieves removed the entire units in order to sell them. At one time there was a gate across the alley to prevent access to the back of the building. They stole that, too. "They took the whole gate," Fauntroy says, shaking his head. "We fixed the roof and they opened it right up, twice. We patched until we patched out of money."

His insurance policies canceled long ago, Fauntroy has had to find other ways to keep the doors open. But the recent burglary appears to have been the final straw dropped on an emotional and financial burden that has become too heavy to carry. SCLC national headquarters demands yearly dues but leaves its chapters to fend for themselves. Since the car-accident settlement money ran out, Fauntroy has been getting by on the salary his wife earns by teaching at a private Baptist school. Such are the sources of nonprofit funding in the black community, the activist complains. What he envisioned as a humble start to addressing that problem -- amassing black capital from a series of small businesses that were to have sprung up from the SCLC storefronts -- has not produced even enough cash to pay his and Bernie Meyers's salaries.

Fauntroy says he has the answers but no access to money. The SCLC chapter is endeavoring to start a micro-loan program to fund the hoped-for small businesses. He wants to refinance his mortgage to keep afloat a summer program for 15 to 30 neighborhood kids -- familiarizing them with computers and teaching them other usable skills -- and to expand a vitamin store in the office lobby into a health clinic. "If I had my health clinic here [the woman accused of the most recent break-in] could come in and get cleaned up from the drugs and then go next door and start a business to provide for her family," Fauntroy says. "But I can't get the financial support to help turn this tide alone."

As if on cue, he is interrupted again, this time by a phone call from a loan broker. When he hangs up, more frustration. "We are still red-lined, we are still denied our economic rights from the banks and insurance companies, from the lending institutions," he asserts. "I just finished hearing that it will cost 40 percent [interest] to get a loan here, if we get one at all."

He explains that he, like many black leaders, sees the new civil rights battle as one for economic control of the inner cities. But then the bitterness creeps back in. Miami is a special case, Fauntroy argues, because of the waves of Cuban immigrants who get easy access to jobs courtesy of the government, as well as financial backing from their fellow countrymen who have come before. Even Haitians who have had quick success in their new city have little sympathy for the social and economic isolation of the American black community, he adds; they move quickly up the economic ladder, benefitting from strong family groups and entrepreneurial skills. What these foreigners bring with them from their homeland, Fauntroy says, organizations like his must teach the local black community.

A smartly dressed teenage girl brings another interruption, her poise and self-possession momentarily dispelling the day's gloomy mood. She's one of the success stories of the summer youth program, which is run by Bernie Meyers. Ironically, when Meyers, who has been with Fauntroy since 1986, offers her assessment of her organization's current woes, she sounds a lot like the black immigrants Fauntroy has just been criticizing. She puts the blame for the SCLC's problems right outside on the corner, not at the doorstep of downtown banks. "Ray spends his whole life trying to help people who -- he doesn't like to hear me say this -- couldn't give a shit about themselves," she says, smiling brightly. "You have two groups of black people: those who become complacent and forget about what Dr. King did for them because they have moved on; and you have the ones at the bottom of the ladder, who don't care because things are so dismal they know there is no way out and they have given up, such as the people who have broken in here."

Meyers says she now cares only about the young people who come to SCLC's battered storefront every summer. "I have given up on the older people," she asserts. "Ray, right now, would agree. But let a telephone call come in from someone in trouble..."

It comes down to the realities of the Nineties bashing away at Fauntroy's civil-rights spirit of the Sixties. At age 55 he's losing steam. He says he can't blame his wife for insisting that he finally get himself a "real job," but at the same time he can't bring himself to give up on sixteen years' work.

Which explains why he is determined to reopen the thrift store this week. And which also explains why Bernie Meyers, for one, doesn't think Fauntroy will be surrendering any time soon. "I don't think even his wife can get him out," says Meyers. "He is too much into the welfare of his people.

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Donald W. Pine