'I never ... thought I would live to see this day'

Miami HeraldAugust 27, 2008 

DENVER — Preston Marshall stared down fire hoses, billy clubs and hatred to march with Martin Luther King Jr.

Eufaula Frazier watched her Liberty City neighborhood burn after police were cleared of beating an unarmed black motorcyclist to death.

Neither thought they would ever see this day.

On Thursday, when Barack Obama officially becomes the first black presidential nominee, he will stand on the shoulders of these longtime Miamians and other African Americans who struggled and suffered for civil rights.

Much has been said about Obama's effect on young people, but it is the older folks who lay the biggest claim on his acceptance speech.

"I didn't know it would happen in my lifetime," said Marshall, who witnessed King's famous Washington address — 45 years ago Thursday — and founded Miami's parade in his honor. "Dr. King's dream is coming true."

Marshall and Frazier have been to every Democratic convention since 1972. This one is different.

"When I started walking down the convention hall, I felt the spirit," Frazier said. ‘‘I don't know what I'm going to do when Obama gives his speech. I guess I'm going to yell and holler."

The 83-year-old great-grandmother uses a cane and wheelchair to get around, no easy task in the cavernous, jam-packed, convention center ringed with security checkpoints and barricades. Marshall, 72, also uses a cane.

Their faces look much younger, perhaps because they have kept their lives full of meaning and memories.

Marshall was born and raised in Overtown and recalls when the main drag on Northwest Third Avenue was hopping with nightclubs and soul food restaurants. He met King as a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, where they protested at the five-and-dime stores. They met up again in St. Augustine and Tallahassee to march for civil rights.

Marshall went on to organize the first Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Liberty City in 1976 — before the holiday was enshrined into federal law in 1983 and officially observed years later around the country.

"A lot of people didn't understand the parade," he said. "They didn't want to take a day off from work, even black folks. Nobody believed I was going to be able to do it."

Thirty-two years later, this renaissance man who wears a cross and a trumpet around his neck is still doing it. He's an ordained minister, teacher and musician with a doctorate in education and a flair for languages. He met Obama on the convention floor after his electrifying speech in 2004 and felt a powerful connection.

For Frazier, a green sash of campaign buttons is her bridge between African-American political heroes past and present. She ran her fingers over the tarnished pins. One for Gwen Cherry, the first black woman elected to the Florida Legislature.

Two more for Carrie Meek and Alcee Hastings, the first African Americans — along with Corrine Brown — elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction. Another for Jesse Jackson, only the second African American to mount a nationwide campaign for president.

"This is my history," Frazier said simply.

Frazier was born into a family of 11 children in Eastman, Ga., where their farm was among the few black-owned homesteads. She remembers walking three or four miles to a one-room schoolhouse and getting splashed by the school bus ferrying the white children to a separate school.

She was accepted to Howard University but couldn't afford to go. She went to Washington anyway, attending cosmetology school.

Frazier moved to Miami in 1950, raised four children and opened a beauty shop, the Little Nook. Customers would tell her stories about the nearby apartment housing, where shoddy living conditions mattered little to landlords impatient for rent.

Frazier sold the shop and sprang into action. "Every time the landlord put somebody out in the community, we put them back in," said Frazier, who started the Tenants Education Association of Miami. She helped pass a state law protecting tenants' rights, taught school, registered voters and advocated HIV testing.

One of her biggest battles was for housing assistance for 70 families forced to move out of Overtown to make way for a school.

At 53, her kids nearly grown, she earned a degree in social work from Florida International University.

Frazier also started a grocery called Michelle's, the only store left intact in the 4900 block of Northwest 17th Avenue after riots overtook Liberty City in 1980. An all-white jury had acquitted four white Miami-Dade police officers of killing Arthur McDuffie, and fury boiled over into the streets. Eighteen people died.

Frazier remembers walking the streets trying to calm people down.

"They threw tear gas on all of us," she said. "I saw kids throwing rocks at cars. I was angry at what was happening and I was hurt because I saw those little children being exposed to all that violence."

Frazier closed her store two years ago after her daughter, working the cash register, was held up at gunpoint.

Still, as she prepares to take her seat at Invesco Field to watch a black man accept the nomination for the highest position in the land, she is optimistic about her neighborhood and her country.

"To come here now, and see a young black man — who at one time couldn't even look at a white woman, couldn't walk in the front door, couldn't eat in the same restaurant — to see Obama be nominated as president?" she marveled.

"I would never have thought I would live to see this day."

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