BY DAPHNE TAYLOR
Ahmaud Arbery, the jogger who sparked the hashtag #joggingwhileblack, after being executed by vigilantes in a White South Georgia neighborhood in February, left behind a distraught mother who now has difficulty facing any given Sunday.
Wanda Cooper-Jones managed to tell the audience at a Black Lives Matter mural unveiling on Sunday, Oct. 18 that those days are rough because that was the day her son was taken from this earth for doing nothing but going on a run.
“I have a difficult time on Sundays, and today is a Sunday,” she said through tears in the parking lot of New Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, in the predominantly Black waterfront city of Riviera Beach, which is less than a 30-minute drive from President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach.
A church first
Bishop Thomas Masters, founder and pastor of the church and former longtime mayor of Riviera Beach, had invited families of those slain by police in recent times to commemorate the unveiling of the Black Lives Matter mural in the church parking lot, a first in Palm Beach County and quite possibly the first in the state of Florida.
The organization Sub-Culture Group painted the church mural free of charge.
Masters is known for his farreaching civil rights endeavors.
While mayor, he fostered the name change of one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares, “Old Dixie Highway,” and had it changed to President Barack Obama Highway.
Tribute to victims
Ironically, the new Black Lives Matter mural at the church is just one block away from both the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and President Barack Obama Highway.
Masters says what makes the mural even more unique is that it reads: Black Lives Matter Too!
Since the unveiling, he has received numerous phone calls and texts from people all over saying it should have been the original slogan from the beginning nationwide.
On Oct. 18, Masters also unveiled bright red parking space curbstones bearing the names of Medgar Evers, Jimmie Lee Jackson and King as well as the names of modern-day members of the Black Lives Matter movement such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Corey Jones, Trayvon Martin and more.
The red color of the curbstones signifies the blood they shed as they lost their lives. The occasion also marked the fifth anniversary of the killing of Florida church drummer Corey Jones at the hands of an officer who is now serving a 25-year sentence for the 2015 shooting, a rare occurrence in police killings.
Show of solidarity
Masters galvanized the families of Arbery, Jones, Philando Castile, Tinoris Williams, Brian Quinones, as well as Dr. Yusef Salaam, a member of the Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five.
Each family thanked Masters for his foresight in honoring their loved ones. In a show of solidarity, local funeral homes each presented the families with an oversized blanket bearing a portrait of their slain family member.
Sheila Banks, aunt of Corey Jones said she was honored to help bring some of the families together for such a momentous occasion. It was five years to the day that she got the call that her nephew had been killed by a police officer.
“I instantly knew something wasn’t right because to know Corey is to know that he was a good person and would not harm anyone. I knew something was wrong,” she said, wearing a Corey Jones mask.
But Masters took the reins and helped her family through their darkest hour, even leading them to Washington, D.C. seeking justice.
In the end, her family did get justice – sort of. Former officer Nouman Raja was sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing Jones off I-95 in the predominantly White city of Palm Beach Gardens as Jones waited for a tow truck for his impaired vehicle.
When asked how they felt about the officer getting 25 years when officers are never even charged in police killings, Banks was resolute.
“Partial justice was served because we wanted life. My family is a praying family, and we went before God and the community came together. Bishop Masters was right there with us. It was important for us to be here today. He stood beside us and went before us.”
A lasting pain
Banks said she also knows the importance of families bonding once they’ve experienced the pain of having a family member die at the hands of those who swore to serve and protect them.
For her, it was Vickie Williams who helped her to receive and give support to those others. Williams’ son, Tinoris, was killed by police in West Palm Beach in 2014. She knew the impact of such a bond, and she paved the way for Banks.
Although Dr. Yusef Salaam’s physical life wasn’t taken, he knows what a crooked criminal justice system looks and feels like. As a member of the Central Park Five, he was a mere 15-year old teen when he and four other teenagers were accused of brutally raping and assaulting a White Central Park jogger in 1989.
Salaam spent seven years behind bars before DNA exonerated him and the four others. The real rapist eventually confessed. But as fate would have it, Salaam has the distinction of crossing paths with two United States presidents in his lifetime.
‘Cross to a crown’
During the time of his conviction, then developer Donald Trump took out an ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five. He couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. But in a twist of fate, Salaam ended up receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama.
Masters was elated that Salaam shared his story and was on hand for the occasion.
“Dr. Salaam went from Calvary to Resurrection and from a cross to a crown,” he quipped.
But what did the day mean if people don’t go out and vote? asked Riviera Beach Councilman Douglas Lawson.
That’s why, after all the commemorating and celebrating, the special guests and audience took to convertibles, buses, vans and cars and were led by the councilman in a caravan throughout Riviera Beach urging residents to get out and vote.
A fitting ending to an historic day.