The Rev. Al Sharpton stood in the troubled public housing complex of Dunbar Village on Monday morning and told residents he supported their efforts to keep the aging complex from being torn down.
He also promised to return within the month to hold a town hall meeting and spend the night in a place that drew national attention after the gang rape of a woman and assault on her 12-year-old son in their Dunbar apartment. Four teenagers, including several who lived in Dunbar Village, are charged in the case.
Sharpton's visit came as a surprise to the West Palm Beach Housing Authority, which runs Dunbar Village and has floated a proposal to tear it down and replace the aging complex with newer housing. Sharpton said he heard reports from residents that authorities wanted to replace Dunbar with higher-income housing.
"I went to Dunbar Village because I was concerned that some of the residents said they were being pushed out for gentrification and for commercial interests," Sharpton said. "Certainly the savage event that occurred there is something that was appalling and horrible to all of us around the country, but you don't victimize the victims. The people that live there are the victims of that kind of terrorism. They are not the perpetrators, and I think they are being victimized twice."
Housing Authority commissioners said Sharpton got it wrong.
Commission Chairwoman Thyra Starr said the proposal, espoused by Mayor Lois Frankel, is to tear down the 60-year-old complex and build a new multi-income neighborhood with modern accommodations that would still offer housing for the indigent.
Starr said residents were mistaken that tearing the aging complex down will mean an end to public housing there.
"If this was a private development going in, then those concerns would probably be more of a reality," Starr said. "But our mission is for low-income housing. We are not going to do anything but protect the people who live there and the service for the people we have there."
Sharpton, she said, was listening to spin.
"That's why there's so much controversy, because everybody's putting their own spin on it and nobody's listening to what the Housing Authority is saying," she said. "At least understand our plight."
Sharpton then moved on to Riviera Beach, where he visited two schools and spoke to students about the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He also visited City Hall.
"To hear him speak about keeping the dream alive, about the legacy of Dr. King and what that means to our country and the children at the schools, that was awesome," said Mayor Thomas Masters.
The New York City activist said he was inspired by the youngsters who "still have hope in their eyes."
"I think this morning has been a mixture of hope and despair, and it gave me a lot to think about," Sharpton said.
Monday night, Sharpton made his final stop at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Boynton Beach, where he spoke to a crowd of more than 100. His message was simple:
"We must register everyone over 18 to vote," said Sharpton, standing before a clapping, cheering audience. "I don't care who you vote for, but not to vote is to marginalize our community."
Sharpton's visit to Palm Beach County was part of a four-day tour of Florida, during which he hoped to rally would-be voters and empower communities such as Dunbar Village to stand up for social justice.
Three more rallies are planned today in the Miami area, his last stops in Florida.
Asked about Barack Obama's early win in the Iowa caucuses, Sharpton said Iowa was a tremendous victory for Obama but the race is far from over.
"I think the nomination will be determined on Feb. 5," said Sharpton, a former presidential candidate, about the Super Tuesday primary in which 24 states, including New York and California, vote. "A lot can happen between now and then."
He added that even if Obama wins, it won't end the fight for racial equality.
"We should not assume that because we get a black in a high place that would stop racism," he said. "I mean, we've had two black secretaries of state and two blacks in the U.S. Supreme Court, and we still have that struggle on the street. So I think it's the height of naivete for us to put it on him."
Staff Writer Rachael Joyner contributed to this report.
Dianna Cahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-228-5501.