VOICE FOR CHANGE A lion passed away on Sept. 15, not with a roar, but quietly in a hospital bed days after suffering a stroke. And when Leroy Boyd breathed his last breath that hot, humid morning, Pensacola lost another important figure from its storied past. Just as Vice Admiral Jack Fetterman, Mayor Emeritus Vince Whibbs, Sr. and attorney M. J. Menge who passed in the last decade, Leroy left an indelible mark on this city.
Pensacola has a history of punishing its outspoken African-American leaders. Ask Rev. H. K. Matthew who protested the 1974 shooting of Wendel Sylvester Blackwell and was later convicted and imprisoned because an all-white jury believed the protest was somehow extortion. Matthew was later granted clemency, but was forced to move out of the area.
Other than a few half-hearted protests about the lack of minority faces in a YouTube video on area tourism, few African-American elected officials have forcefully taken on the status quo.
Leroy Boyd was the loud voice that made up the soft approach of those appointed and later elected to office. He refused to be silent. He refused to be compliant. He refused to sit down and look away from injustice. From the little white house, known as the Center for Social Justice, Leroy listened to the cries of the disenfranchised and forgotten and tried to make a difference against insurmountable odds.
We met in October 2005 in the office of attorney Gene Mitchell. Leroy shared the story of Robert Boggon, a 65-year-old trucker who died Aug. 29, 2005 in the Escambia County Jail, allegedly after being dragged from his cell, stripped naked and forced into a shower cell where corrections officers hit him and shot him with a Taser gun three times. We reviewed the file, interviewed the family and published an article on the death, which had been ignored by the other media.
My editor, Duwayne Escobedo, and I marched with Leroy and his Movement for Change supporters to protest what turned out to be the first of three deaths of jail inmates over the year. Elected officials, black or white, were scarce that day.
Sheriff Ron McNesby later attempted to use photographs of us at the march to discredit the paper with advertisers. His detention officers survived a coroner’s inquest without being charged, but McNesby’s insurance company eventually settled with the Boggon family out of court.
In 2009, after McNesby failed to win a third term and a Democratic president was sworn into office, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office to determine “whether there were systemic violations of the Constitution or laws of the United States in the use of force and police practices by members of the ECSO and in the conditions of confinement at ECJ (Escambia County Jail).”
The original complaints had been filed in 2003 and 2006 by Boyd’s Movement for Change and the American Civil Liberties Union. The articles we published were part of the documentation for the complaints. When newly elected Sheriff David Morgan announced the federal investigation, Leroy was at the press conference with a big smile. The announcement was vindication of his pursuit for justice. The scales had finally tipped in his favor.
Lately, Leroy had focused on the public school system. We never got a chance to talk about the recent No Child Left Behind letters, but I would have loved to have his take on the letters that singled out the African-American, economically disadvantaged and disabled students.
I can hear his soft, forceful voice telling me how he planned to deal with it. I miss it and Pensacola will, too.