Twenty-five years ago Friday, two of Miami’s largest communities squared off in a highly emotional dispute that would cost the area millions of dollars in lost tourism, embarrass elected public officials and focus national attention on the stark inequalities of a sharply divided community. The disagreement between African Americans and Cuban Americans, however, would also eventually usher in long-overdue economic and political changes.
“A group of us lawyers had been looking for a way to address the issues of inequality for a while,” said attorney H.T. Smith, who led a boycott that would keep black businesses and organizations from Miami for almost three years. “We had had three riots in the ’80s and wanted an alternative to that, but we needed something to unify us.”
That something would come from an unlikely place. Anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was expected to visit Miami in June 1990, four months after being released from a South African prison. Miami made plans for a proclamation and a key to the city, but after Mandela acknowledged support for Fidel Castro, Moammar Gadhafi and Yasser Arafat during a TV interview, commissioners rescinded the official welcome. Five Cuban-American mayors went on to sign a letter criticizing Mandela’s comments.
Battle lines were quickly drawn. For days local black leaders warned the Miami City Commission that African Americans would call for a boycott if Mandela didn’t receive the proclamation and the key to the city. When nothing came of that appeal, the National Bar Association, an organization of black lawyers, announced on July 17 it wouldn’t hold its 1993 convention in Miami. Others — including the ACLU, which took its business to Hollywood — followed the lawyers’ example.
“We called it the Quiet Riot,” recalled Smith, “and we knew it was a way everyone could participate.”
By the time Boycott Miami ended, on May 12, 1992, apologies had been extended and proclamations issued. More important, boycott organizers had proven a point: Miami’s African-American community was an economic and political force that could not be ignored or disrespected.
But the victory wasn’t without emotional and financial cost. Estimates of lost convention business and tourist dollars ranged from $20 million to $50 million. Smith pins it higher. “Those were only the ones who contracted and pulled out,” he said. “There was no way to estimate how many [conventions and tourists] might have come but didn’t.”
The boycott also tarnished Miami’s reputation. Boycott organizers commissioned a video that compared conditions in Miami to those in segregated Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s. It was paid for by a collection taken up at black churches one Sunday. Smith called it “devastating and powerful.”
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, then Miami’s first Cuban-American mayor, had spearheaded the opposition to an official Mandela proclamation. He now says he and Smith “have reached personal closure.” He added that he would rather talk about the improvements that resulted from the boycott instead of the missteps. Publicly he has labeled that time “the most difficult and hurtful point of my political career.”
Improvements for the African-American community directly and indirectly attributable to the boycott were both numerous and notable: court-ordered single-member districts for better representation of minorities, the creation of the Visitor Industry Council to expand African-American participation in the county's tourism industry, scholarships for black students to attend Florida International University's hospitality program, an investigation of Haitian protesters' treatment by police during a rally in July 1990, and the establishment of a black-owned, convention-quality hotel in the Miami Beach area.
Aided by a loan from Miami Beach, that hotel — the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza, with majority owner R. Donahue Peeble — opened eight years after the 1,000-day boycott was lifted, the country’s first black-owned luxury resort.
Other transformations followed. Suarez points to more promotions of African Americans in government jobs, including three police chiefs in Miami during his mayoral tenure and the current police director in Miami-Dade.
The most significant success of the boycott, however, may be intangible. “The most notable victory was psychological,” said historian Marvin Dunn, a retired assistant professor of psychology at FIU. “It gave a lift to the African-American community, a lift that we could still make a change without setting ourselves on fire.”
A quarter century after that 1990 square-off, however, leaders on both sides admit much remains undone. Dorothy Jenkins Fields, a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation, believes economic disparity continues because of the lack of long-range training and promotion for minorities. In the late 1980s, she points out, the old Miami Heat Arena was built adjacent to Overtown, employing Overtown residents, but “once the arena was completed the Overtown construction workers were unemployed again and a generation of families suffered.” In an email, she expressed fear that the most recent mega development in the area — the Miami Worldcenter — may repeat history by offering short-term employment to Overtown residents but no long-range training or promotional opportunities.
Minorities also were inordinately affected by the Great Recession, Suarez said, and have not recovered economically at the same rate as whites. Housing is growing increasingly unaffordable for the working class and an ineffective public transportation system makes it harder for the neediest to keep jobs once they find them. He calls the differences in educational opportunities a “gaping disparity.”
Dunn agrees. “One of the main things left undone is the educating and training of the untrained, unskilled, inexperienced people in our community who cannot find jobs. And this crosses racial lines.”
He also cites Miami-Dade’s segregated neighborhoods as proof that Miami-Dade has a long road to travel on the map of race relations. “We still live in separate communities, more so than you see in other cities,” Dunn added. “Seeing each other at work doesn’t mean we’re diverse. True diversity happens when people come together by sharing the same space.”
For all the work left to do, boycott leader Smith struck a note of optimism recently when he said he was “extremely encouraged” by the views and behavior of Miami’s millennials, a generation that is “much more open, tolerant and adventurous.” What’s more, the lessons of the Miami Boycott won’t soon be forgotten.
“Miami has learned that to be a great city it has to embrace all the tribes whether or not it agrees with all its leaders, all its actions and all its feelings,” Smith said. “We also have to be very sensitive to the pain of the other tribes because every tribe has some pain in its past. It may not be like our pain, but what we have in common, what we still share is the promise of the future.”