Interviewer: James A. DeVinney
Production Team: A
Interview Date: March 20, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1060
Sound Rolls: 123
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Bill Perry, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 20, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Okay, give me your first impressions of Miami.
Well I came to Miami in 1977 out of Baltimore. When I first got here I was kind of excited about coming to a new area. I only came to stay six months. But one of the glaring uh, kind of things that I noticed that uh, particularly among African-Americans is that there were no groups here caught up in the so-called civil rights struggle that were very active. No young militant groups uh, NAACP was somewhat inactive. In fact I became president of NAACP after only being here about a year and a half, which I thought was somewhat alarming, to give you some idea of what was going on in the community at the time. Um, I expected um, to find more civil rights activity, and I didn't find much. I was working in the school system, um, and found the community to be somewhat uh, depressing.
What was your impression about local leadership?
From my point of view there was a dearth of local leadership. Ah, what I found is that people in the community seemed to be more interested in their personal goals and accomplishing, uh, meeting their personal ambitions. Ah, I've been somewhat community oriented and worked with people that were working on behalf of the community. So I found myself somewhat left out. I attempted to run for public office when I first got here and uh, people were upset at that, they viewed me as an outsider. Typically when I go places, I become very active with my people, as African-American I don't see myself as an outsider no matter where I go and the African-Americans there.
Okay, tell me about the demonstration on Miami Beach.
Shortly after I came here, uh, as head of NAACP, there was a South African fighter who was having a fight on Miami Beach. Ah, since he was f--from South Africa, I called for a demonstration at the time. In fact, Jessie Jackson came down and tried to get the people stirred up for that. Ah, we met with the commissioners on the beach, we did not get any results, so we went through with the demonstration. I felt somewhat good about it and as much as we had it on Miami Beach because a lot of the little old Jewish ladies participated in the demonstration with us. And I often made the comment, "I'm glad it's on Miami Beach and not in Liberty City because we did have a following." Ah, the demonstration wasn't effective but it, it looked good. Ah, there was an absence of uh, African-American participation, but we went through with it anyway.
Okay, I'd like to go on to what the mood was before, as the McDuffie trial was opening perhaps, the policeman. What was the mood? Was there optimism? Tell your feelings of what you sensed.
I think there was general optimism in the community. Ah, we had the state attorney come out and meet with several groups and talk about the case and what would happen, we looked uh, for an indictment. Ah, some- some of us were not too optimistic. I wasn't for one. And at that time I had a series of prayer meetings every evening on the steps of the state attorney's office building. And it just so happened that the evening that the decision came down of freeing the guys, my neighbor came over and called me and crying. And I was mowing my grass. And she told me what had happened and I became angered. And she encouraged me to go start my prayer meeting ear--early that evening. And she proceeded to make phone calls to get other people to come out. Well up until this point I never had more than 15 people participate in those prayer meetings we had outside. That evening when I got 'round to the building, there must have been over 3500 people out there. It was frightening. I, I thought to myself, I said, now I've been asking for some followership and I have it now and I don't know what to do.
What happened that night?
All hell broke loose that night. Ah, it just so happened that people came to the meeting that we were having, at the same time there were people already in Liberty City had started blocking streets, barricading streets, pushing uh, dumpsters in the streets so that traffic would slow down, and they were attacking people in the cars. Um, White people were driving through the area. A lot of those persons started marching to the courthouse as we were--not the courthouse, the state attorney's office--'cause we were on the steps with the crowd out there. Ah, the other group came in, we didn't have a public address system, the cops wouldn't let us have one, we'd requested one. Consequently we could not reach all the people, so some confusion took place. The guys that came into the demonstration brought a bullhorn and they were able to capture the crowd and get their attention and said they were going to march somewhere else. Some of the people started marching just as that took place, some of the kids set a car on fire in front of the building. And from that point it seemed as if fires started to light up all over the place and people started breaking out the windows and crashing in--into the state attorney's uh, office building.
During the course of the next several days when the riots were happening, Jesse Jackson, Andy Young, Ben Hooks, Joseph Lowery, all came to Miami. What did you think of their participation?
I was, I think Jesse did an excellent job. Jesse always, when he comes into to this community, tends to relate to people in the community. Ah, Ben and the rest of them uh, they met over at the Howard Johnson in North Miami Beach, far removed from the community, most of them did not live in the community at the time. Jesse lived with a resident of the Liberty City at the time and played basketball with kids on the street, actually could relate to them. The rest of them held high powered meetings and got a lot of press attention and not much resulted from that. In fact, I uh, left them and went to a radio station and just talked on the radio I guess for about 27 hours trying to tell people to cool it, to calm down, uh, and refused to meet with uh, those groups at the time.
Ok, lets stop down.
Okay, tell me about those young people in the streets.
I sensed an attitude amongst the youngsters in the streets uh, immediately following the disturbance and even during the disturbance that I hadn't seen before, that was somewhat frightening. When you see kids stand in front of national guardsman with an automatic weapon and stand there and curse them out with all kind of profanity and vulgarity, and actually dare them to do something. I hadn't seen that kind of behavior before. Ah, the kind of looting that tak--took place and the youngsters breaking into stores and taking bicycles and sofas and televisions. Ah, I was somewhat alarmed at that uh, I expected some looting to occur, but I think this's a carryover of the attitude that we're just going to take over now, we're going to get even, saw a lot of that. And I, it's somewhat frightening now to think that happened back in 1980 and these, the youngsters that participated then are now in high school and some have finished high school and I just wonder if we've looked at the behavior they manifested then and has there been any carryover today.
Lets stop down, sorry to be so stop-and-start here.
Tell us, just take it.
Okay. You know, we, we often will look at the disturbances and the people that were involved in the disturbances and ask the question, you know, what benefits have we gained. I see two kinds of things happening. Ah, those persons, the so-called Black professionals, African-American professionals who have gained the most--the least. Ah, the people that participated in the demonstrations and the, the uh, revolutions as they called them, uh, gained the least. If you look at what occurred, following the demonstration, each time there have been meetings downtown and persons have participated in those meetings, and what we've found is those persons that have gone to those meetings attempting to negotiate on behalf of the community, were negotiating on their personal behalf. Consequently, the total community loses. I think that what has happened is that, that every time there's been an incident like this there have been persons in this community in particular that have gotten promoted, uh, new money is put into the community and certain individuals benefit. But as a consequent of those persons out in the street throwing the bottles, setting the fires, rooting--looting and carrying on those kind of actions at others people's benefit, other peoples--people benefit. I criticize those people because they don't make a contribution to the community, they don't realize that had it not been for the disturbance, they never would have gotten the promotion. I mean they're the people that work in social service agencies now, work in those agencies as a result of the disturbances that occurred in the street. They don't pay back anything. We have in this community what I began to identify as hidden negroes, those persons that work with the Fortune 500 companies, that you go to a meeting, uh, go to a corporate kind of meeting, you find them, you know, scattered in the crowd, and you say, my God, where have these people been hiding all along. I think things are coming full circle now. They've been isolated and alienated from their own people and they're beginning to find and discover that they're not accepted out there either when they move out into suburbia. So I think what we're beginning to see is the so-called Black professional beginning to move back into the inner city and attempting to make a contribution. Ah, I hope that we can trust them and accept the contribution that they're willing to make, but they're not coming back with the magnitude that I would like to see them come back in this community.
Very good. Let's stop down.
Tell us about the Miami Beach demonstration.
Okay, my, my first involvement and direct action in, this area happened to have been I think around 1980 uh, when Gerrie Coetzee came in, a South African fighter, to participate in a fight on Miami Beach. Ah, we got the NAACP kind of revved up for that and called for a demonstration on the beach. Ah, we didn't get much participation from persons on this side, from the Liberty City or the so-called African-American community. We did get a large participation from many of the Jews on Miami Beach who have, and who know oppression and have experienced it first hand and were willing to participate. In fact, the demonstration was only supposed to, was supposed to last about five hours, but I looked at the some of the dear old ladies and men we had and they were willing to go with it, but we had to shorten the demonstration because we just not, could not see carrying them out there that long. Ah, it wasn't successful and we were not able to stop the fight. But it seemed to bring together a sense of alliance between the older Jews in this community and some few of the African-Americans.
That's fine...I think I heard a rollout on that.