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Fertile Ground For Change

Tuesday, August 5
King: Belle Glade 'fertile ground' for change

By Rochelle Brenner and Larry Hobbs, Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 5, 2003

It may not be Memphis or Birmingham, but activists see the small, farming city of Belle Glade as a place ripe for civil rights reform.

"Belle Glade is perhaps a microcosm of rural small counties in America. It certainly makes it a fertile ground for change," Martin Luther King III said Monday at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's national convention in Memphis.

As president of the SCLC, he announced Sunday he plans to visit Belle Glade in a few weeks to call attention to the hanging death of 32-year-old Feraris "Ray" Golden. King said he empathized with Golden's mother Bernice Golden when he met her at the convention.

"I lost a father when I was 10 years old and I know how that affects me, but a mother never expects to bury a child," said King, seated at the Park Vista Hotel.

Although a two-day inquest last week ruled the death a suicide, King said the details he's heard about point to "foul play."

"It doesn't pass the smell test," King said. "Our objective is not just to raise the issue but to resolve the issue. It's very very rare that people of color would hang themselves."

But King's interest in going to Belle Glade goes beyond determining whether Golden's death was suicide or a lynching. He also wants to take a closer look at the investigative process and use it as an example to raise awareness nationwide.

Bernard Lafayette Jr., a Tampa native and one of the Freedom Riders in the 1960s, agreed with King and said if a national spotlight on Belle Glade prompts change, there is hope that other communities will follow suit.

"It's a plantation mentality that still exists, not just a question of murder," he said. "Let that be an example for every other place."

Bernice Golden's lawyer, Kemi Reed, would not allow Golden to comment at the convention. But Henry Drummer said his wife brought funeral home photos of her son's body to the conference so officials there could inspect them.

Belle Glade police, the medical examiner and Circuit Judge Harold Cohen, who headed the inquest, all called the May 28 death a suicide. Belle Glade Police Chief Michael Miller reiterated Monday that his department is prepared to fully pursue any evidence contrary to the findings of suicide.

He said the department shared all information that it gathered concerning Golden's death with the FBI. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights opened a preliminary review into the case and will determine within two weeks whether a larger investigation is necessary.

At a Belle Glade city commission meeting Monday night, state Rep. Hank Harper Jr., D-West Palm Beach, used the hanging controversy to call for the removal of Miller as police chief, citing accusations of rampant abuse of power by the department. He said the department created an atmosphere of fear for many in the community.

larry_hobbs@pbpost.com, rochelle_brenner@pbpost.com

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