Moderated and Written by Leslie Gray Streeter
Three Black community leaders on the racial reckoning of the past year—and the work that still lies ahead
“We’re facing a lot.”
That could be a general statement for a pandemic- and violence-stricken America, but Riviera Beach’s Derrick McCray isn’t speaking in generalities. The “we” he refers to is the African-American community, and 2020 gave evidence to realities those outside it could no longer ignore.
For those like McCray, who are dedicated to racial equality in Palm Beach County, 2020’s reckoning was just one episode in a long fight that’s never ended. Recently, Boca magazine convened a panel of three proponents of that fight, from different generations: Dan Calloway, whose activism goes back to the days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; McCray, whose father toiled alongside Calloway; and Rev. Rae Whitley, whose sees racial justice not as activism but part of his calling as a pastor.
For an hour, the men participated in a candid Zoom discussion covering the roots of the local movement, how Palm Beach County’s response to the killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people by police nationally connects to the 2015 murder of drummer Corey Jones in Palm Beach Gardens, the most pressing challenges the community faces and what must be done to meet them.
The on-camera death of George Floyd was, in many ways, the breaking of a dam in terms of racial truths in America. What were your reactions when you first heard about it?
Dan Calloway: Anytime in this day and time when a Black person, especially a male, gets killed by a police officer, there’s going to be trouble, because Blacks are not going to tolerate it anymore. I’m an ex-lawman, and some of my colleagues have not learned. … I don’t handle the burning and the looting, that’s not the answer, but I know Black people are not going to tolerate that anymore.
Rev. Whitely: I was numb … and to be honest, I was enraged for weeks. I wanted to join people in the looting. But there’s always the thing that comes between you doing things and them actually getting done, like responsibility and family and community. [But] I really did feel that way. You’re just tired of it and don’t see an answer anywhere in sight.
Derrick McCray: I was mad as hell. … I’m tired of seeing the same thing, when our Black men get killed, just being accused of having a fake 20-dollar bill. He didn’t do anything to warrant him to get killed in that situation. The way they did it. The way the man kept his knee on his neck.
What did you think of the local response?
McCray: [There were] a lot of white folks out here on the line [maybe because] this happened in broad daylight, in open air … and now a lot people who wouldn’t normally have believed what was going on got to see how we have been treated over the years.
Do you think the video made it impossible to ignore?
Whitely: [I think it was] the fact we were quarantined and couldn’t leave the house. We were forced to sit in front of the TV and watch this tragedy over and over and over. Every station you turned on, you saw this man begging for his life. … Why I think we didn’t really see looting in Palm Beach County was the work my colleagues did the first time this happened here, that the action that was created then defined what happened now.
You’re talking about the death of Corey Jones.
Whitely: Yes. If you had had an explosive situation [then], the culture would have been created that this is what we do here. But [instead it was] “We’re going to block some streets off, there’s going to be a disruption, but after that we move onto something else.” You don’t have to burn things down to get things done. … In the initial couple of days after George Floyd got murdered, a couple of people here tried to that, but the masses said, “We don’t do that here.” …We blazed a trail [with the conviction of former Officer Nouman Raja in Jones’ death], and people saw the results. Other places don’t see that; there’s not an arrest, not a conviction.
McCray: If not for Rae, Mr. Calloway and myself and a few other people, keeping the people calm, [it would have been different.] I wrote an open letter to the people in Palm Beach Gardens and said, “The way [Jones’ death] happened, there’s no justification. These people [are going] to tear your city down.” Rae was radical. He wanted to fight the people up there.
Whitely: [chuckling] I did!
McCray: And I said, “We’ve got to sit down and listen.” I talked to Mr. Calloway, and he said, “We’re behind you.”
Calloway: It was the first time a lawman had ever gone to jail for [killing a Black person.] … Derrick, you were the appointed leader. He grew up in his house with his daddy, the greatest civil rights worker we ever had here, Rev. Herman McCray. Gotta give them credit, Palm Beach Gardens worked incredibly well with us and still are doing that.
What started each of you on your road to activism?
Calloway: Way before they were born, I was a part of this. … In 1972 we were just going along here with the one black councilperson in Riviera Beach. During Black History Month at Suncoast High School, there was a riot. [A student] asked the teacher, “When are we going to talk about Black History?” The teacher told him, “Sit down, little n—–,” and that set it off. He wasn’t going to tolerate that, so he cursed her out. … She ran [out], they called the police, they shot the tear gas. Once again, Herman McCray jumped into action. The election was on the first Tuesday in March. Within ten days, they had galvanized the city of Riviera Beach. People got the power to vote, and we went from one to four councilmembers, and out of 13 department heads, 11 were Black.
McCray: Mr. Calloway is right. I was about 8, and I answered the phone, and a man called and said “little n—–, put your mama or pappy on the phone.” My mama took the phone from me and he told [her] “This house [is about] to blow up. The bomb is out there.” Do you remember that? … My daddy and all the guys in there, they didn’t run. … There was no bomb. But I lived with the Klan sending nooses to my house as a little boy because my Daddy, he didn’t back down when dealing with civil rights. I’ve seen him go to jail. I was with him when they wrestled him down at the city council meetings. You see now they have the two-minute rule [for speakers]? That’s the Herman McCray rule.
Whitely: What pushed me into this line was [that] I think I’m just ministering the gospel. I’m just preaching. But the pulpit has become a world stage for me. You preach love. You preach anti-hate. You speak up for the lost and the left out. Right now Black people are the most left-out set of people, and we have to stand up for them. I got into it when I realized that “after I preach, then what?”
How do you think the subsequent generations adapted to those lessons?
McCray: We dropped the ball. We fumbled.
Calloway: Yes you did.
McCray: They came with a mastermind plan. They took vocation out of the schools for Black folks here, the home economics, the shop, the things [where] you learned to work with your hands. They figured “everybody’s got to go to college,” and the next thing they did was to put a lot of drugs in the neighborhoods. Then they started separating the Black family. The men starting going to jail, boys starting getting killed because they’re trying to find a quick buck [because] they can’t work with their hands, because they’re not being taught. My generation started the pipeline to prison. Mr. Calloway and my Daddy had to come through Jim Crow, but they did it together. What happened to us, when we got integrated, and the drugs set in, different things caused us to lose our focus. Especially after King got killed, the national focus changed. It wasn’t “We shall overcome” anymore. I guess we got defeated. There were a few warriors keeping up the fight … but we lost the fight. We went downhill. … My generation set the tone for what’s happening now
Whitely: Every now and again, the establishment changes the way they fight. We then adjust. We were behind still in some of that stuff, and they were so far ahead of us. Now we’ve caught up, or we’re on the same pace. When the establishment changes, we’re far enough to say, “OK, we need to change.” We’ve gone to the technology. We’re on equal footing with the social media. … We’re starting to reach those influencers. We’re back at the place of bringing the Black church to being the hub in the community. We recognize that we do stand on shoulders of those like Mr. Calloway. These are giants. … We have to build on the ideology around preservation that they built on. We may fight differently, but it’s still the same fight.
The media focused this summer on Black Lives Matter, who were out there organizing demonstrations on cellphones and on social media. What’s your impression of that movement?
Whitely: Oh, I love it. I support it. There were a lot of marches I [joined] just to be a presence.
McCray: Make sure you tell them about Black Votes Matter.
Whitely: Right around the time that the [BLM] movement started to get wind, somebody got killed in Boynton Beach. I remember being so pissed off about it; I called Derrick at like 4 o’clock In the morning. Derrick was fast asleep because he doesn’t go to church all the time like I do. So I said, “Black Votes Matter,” and he said “What about it?” And I said, “We have to educate our people about the power of our votes. We have to mobilize and empower.” Derrick jumped up and said, “Rev, you’re onto something, boy.” He went into a whole different gear. He said, “What do we need?” Derrick put money into that account from his own pocket, because that’s what we’re going to need.
But with Black Lives Matter? Here’s where I think we misunderstand it. We have to see that the movement is a continuation of the things that Mr. Calloway and Mr. McCray did. They’re still preaching equality, preaching injustice and bringing an awareness to it. What we as OGs need is to understand it more. Even if we can’t speak at the events, we need to show up [because] it validates the work that they’re doing, and we stand on the sidelines like the big brothers and say, “You best not mess with them.”… Clergy in the south end planned [events] with the BLM people. … When the pastors show up, it changes the energy, but police feel better: “We’re here to demonstrate, but those pastors aren’t going to let them burn places down.”
Mr. Calloway, from your very long experience, what do you think is the biggest problem facing Black people in Palm Beach County?
Calloway: Well, we’re like a bunch of crabs in a barrel. Herman defined this long ago. One day a crab got out of the barrel, but instead of tipping the barrel over, he put the lid back on. Therefore there was only one crab who got out and he didn’t understand [he should] have gotten the rest of the crabs out. The bigger the number, the better it was going to be. When we were allowed to go mingle with the whites in their area and forgot all about our Black areas, we thought we’d gotten to be the biggest thing since sliced bread. We forgot that we are a village, and until we understand the magnitude [of that], if we can’t take care of us, why do we think anybody else is going to take care of us? This [attitude] of “I got mine, you get yours,” that’s no good. I was as part of Dr. King’s group in New York, [and he said] “When I walk through a door, I must reach back and grab someone’s hand, and then that person grabs someone’s hand.”
Whitely: The biggest problem is people who come in and make [the activists] feel important. You have a young man who’s got nothing but passion out there marching and trying to make a change, and the establishment comes in and tells him how important he is. They lock him into all these meetings that go nowhere, and he loses his energy. The solution is for people like Mr. Calloway and Mr. McCray to do what they did to me, which is to say, “No, no, no, this isn’t going to happen to you.”
And last but not least, you have a set of white progressives that always want you to join them, but then the energy shifts away from Black Lives Matter to saving trees. It’s not that I don’t care about trees, God knows I love trees. I love dogs, all of that stuff. I’m all good with that. But people are dying out there in the streets today, and you just shift the whole energy from where I was to where you want me to be.
McCray: In that movement there needs to be a financial piece. As long as [there’s no] money [people are] going to keep doing dumb stuff. The financial literacy part is important. We need to teach this as a tool. This part of our lives matters. Our financial literacy, our metal health, our health overall … all should be encompassed in Black Lives Matter, and not just when somebody gets killed. And Black lives matter also when it’s Black on Black crime. We don’t say anything about that. But let a white officer kill one of us …
I’m all for [the focus] on that but when Ray Ray shoots Jimmy, ain’t nobody stood up to say nothing about that. A house divided among itself can’t stand. …The enrichment of Black folks needs to be more entrenched. That’s where Black lives matter. … I love my people with everything in me. In my business, most of my employees are Black, because they need help first. … I try to have a platform financially to help these people. We need to pool our funds together. … We’ve got money, but we don’t spend it wisely.
We’re seeing white supremacist groups and hate crimes on the upswing [This interview was conducted weeks before the assault on the Capitol in Washington, D.C.—Ed.] Mr. Calloway, how do you compare that to what it was like when you were younger?
Calloway: Everybody was kin. We had one common goal—to keep the white people from killing us. We got away from that. Black-on-Black crime is much greater. We have to be able to tell the truth. Enough is enough. If the Black-on-Black crime stops, I guarantee you we’ll stop the white people.
McCray: [President] Trump came in with racism. … Look what he did to Barack Obama. And close to half of the country went with that. This country is spilt, and some white folks still believe this is their country. … Our job now is to speak truth to power. This is our country, too. You brought us here, and we ain’t going nowhere.
Whitely: Here is the big picture. When Derrick and I were out there marching and blocking the streets, Mr. Calloway was having conversations with the state’s attorney. It’s the same fight on different fronts.
Do you think Joe Biden’s presidency will be helpful with ushering in a new feeling in the country? And if you have hope for the future, where does it come from?
McCray: I think it’s going to do a lot for hope in this country. Almost 80 million people voted for the guy, who want some normalcy back in the presidency, some prestige, some truth, some honor. I think he’s a fair guy who’s trying to show the melting pot of diversity in his administration. … I’m very excited about where we are going.
Whitely: I believe [Biden’s presidency] is a start. But we have to remember ain’t nobody coming to save us. We have to save ourselves. We can’t relax and say, “Trump is gone, we can relax.” During this election cycle, I saw a lot of Black groups coming together, saying, “We’re going to own Palm Beach County.” You had the Greek [fraternity organizations] coming together with the clergy to say, “We are not going to let the Democratic Party come in and tell us how to organize. We’re going to organize ourselves.” Even though I am happy we have a new administration coming in, we have to keep focus. We need to keep organizing. We need to keep having conversations like this.
So that’s where your hope is?
Whitely: That’s where the hope is.
Leslie Gray Streeter is a nationally recognized journalist and author of “Black Widow.” To read our Boca interview with Streeter, click here.