He was a self-proclaimed “hell-raiser” whose response during Miami’s 1980 riots earned him national praise, a street smarts preacher whose abrasive demeanor and epithet-laced speech irked critics but made people listen.
Long before Black Lives Matter evolved into the civil rights movement of the 21st century, the Rev. Willie Sims spearheaded his own campaign in Miami-Dade County, pleading for “the folks at the bottom, the poor, the ex-offenders and the kids who get pushed out of school.”
“He was a champion of our community,” said Stephanie Bromfield, a political consultant and close friend.
Sims, who had been hospitalized with unspecified health issues, died Saturday. He was 68.
Sims was a man of contradictions. He was a peacemaker who earned national praise for easing ethnic tensions, and a preacher who was suspended for “divisive” remarks he made from the pulpit.
A man who never shied away from a microphone, Sims worked for Miami-Dade County from 1981 to 2008, serving as both the director of the Community Relations and Black Affairs Advisory boards. During his tenure, he mobilized volunteers to walk the streets of Liberty City and Overtown to talk to angry residents. In the 1980s, Miami had three racially charged riots stemming from police actions.
“He always believed in putting boots on the ground,” said radio personality Chico “the Virgo” Wesley of HOT 105, who worked with Sims on the CRB. “He wasn’t the kind of guy who waited for things to happen; he always wanted to advocate for the people and he wanted to be there. He would want to arrange all of the meetings and attend all of the meetings and make sure that the people were treated fairly.”
The Rev. C. P. Preston Jr. of Peaceful Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Miami, where Sims served as a pastor for the past 15 years, echoed the sentiments.
“He was a good man; he was a spiritual man — a very loyal and committed man in the church,” Preston said.
Sims was recruited as a crisis response coordinator for Miami-Dade by the late Dewey Knight, then assistant county manager, after four white police officers were acquitted in the death of black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie, sparking Miami’s 1980 riots. Police say McDuffie ran a red light while riding his motorcycle and took off. He was chased by police, handcuffed and brutally beaten by as many as a dozen officers.
“He was a rabble-rouser,” Larry Capp, the former executive director of the CRB, said of Sims. “Knight saw how effective he was on the streets; people listened to him.”
Maurice Ferré, the former Miami mayor who led the city during the McDuffie riots, called Sims “a hero.”
“He was a man who walked the extra mile and would do brave things to calm people down and bring them to the table to hear common-sense reality,” Ferré said. “He was effective, he was sincere and he was loyal to his cause.”
Sims also was no stranger to controversy. At least twice he was suspended by county officials because of his outspokenness.
In 1991, he was suspended after telling a church congregation that he felt like a foreigner in Spanish-speaking Miami. In 2000, amid the ethnically charged Elián González crisis, Sims was again suspended for telling a former CRB chairman to “kiss my a--.’ He was reinstated after protests in the black community.
Capp also reprimanded Sims in 2003 after a volunteer with the county’s goodwill ambassadors program, which Sims headed, complained that he spewed a profanity-laced missive at her. While Sims apologized, he fired off an email to Capp reminding him of his keeping it real style.
“I don’t think I would be as effective as I am on the streets if I was a ‘Holier than thou type of preacher,’ ” Sims wrote to Capp, according to a Miami New Times article.
Capp said reconciling Sims’ preacher background and potty mouth was sometimes difficult.
“There were many times in his role as a minister that we would call upon him to lead us in prayer,” Capp said. “He would give some of the most eloquent, beautiful and articulate prayer I had ever heard. I would think, ‘Is this the same man I had to talk to about his use of foul language?’ He had this beautiful part in him, and then the other part.”
Asked about the contradiction, Preston, the pastor, said: “We understood his way, his words. We took it in the spirit in which he gave it, the spirit of love. He had a good nature and we understood him.”
In a 2000 Miami Herald interview, Sims defended his style, saying detractors should look at his record over the past two decades.
“When I was a hell-raiser, I was a damn good one. When I shifted to the system, I’ve been just as good,” he said.
Sims is survived by his wife, Bonnie, daughters Veronda and Brandy, and several grandchildren. A wake will take place from 2 to 9 p.m. Sept. 11 at Peaceful Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 2400 NW 68th St. in Miami. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Sept. 12 at New Birth Baptist Church, 2300 NW 135th St.