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Thursday October 2nd 2014

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Weathered Warrior

Sherri Myers continues fight for civil rights
by Rick Outzen

Born to an unwed mother and growing up in the slums of Montgomery, Ala., Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers has an affinity for underdogs and those that society shuns and ignores.

That connection to the poor, homeless and powerless has driven her to fight injustice most of her life, without fear or favor. Her outspokenness has made people uncomfortable over the years. She often speaks the inconvenient truths that anger those in power because she upsets their backroom deals and hidden agendas.

Myers isn’t cool or trendy. She’s old and weathered. She doesn’t dine at Jackson’s or drink tequila at 5 ½ with the mayor and his buddies. Myers eats at the cafeteria at Sacred Heart Hospital, thanks to a senior discount, and enjoys an occasional glass of wine at home.

And despite being mocked by the mayor’s staff and his friends behind her back, Sherri Myers refuses to be silent.  The councilwoman for District 2 doesn’t care that they are looking for someone younger and more malleable to run against her in 2014. She has earned her right to have her say.

Civil Rights History
The orange envelope the councilwoman bought to Independent News was crammed with newspaper articles from The Nashville Tennessean, Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) and Pensacola News Journal. The clippings were faded, having been photocopied maybe a dozen times too often.

“These will give you an idea what I’m about,” Councilwoman Myers said. She had them organized into four sections — housing, violence toward women, homelessness and environment.

In the “Housing” section, an article by Frank Ritter (The Nashville Tennessean, “Rats Fail To Startle NHA Slum Tenants,” July 2, 1968) told the story of Mrs. Lenzy Jones and her family living in one side of a triplex, owned by the Nashville Housing Authority (NHA). The bathroom was an outhouse, 30 feet from the unit in a clump of waist-high weeds and bushes. The unit had not had electricity in six years. When Ritter visited the Jones family, he saw a large rat scamper across the kitchen floor.

“We had a federally-subsidized agency that was the worse slumlord in Nashville,” Myers said. “Today, we wouldn’t have allowed a local government to buy up substandard housing and rent it out for public housing.”

Myers helped organize the Nashville Committee for Decent Housing in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. earlier in the year.

“We wanted to honor his work,” she said. “His death and civil rights legacy spurred us to organize.”

The Jones’ unit was to be demolished and replaced. However, the NHA demanded rent for it until they moved into the new housing. The Nashville Committee for Decent Housing demanded the NHA board stop charging rent for the rat-infested unit. Eventually the board relented after pressure from the federal government, media and the public.

In the next set of clippings, Myers was referred to as a “feminist” for opening Nashville’s first rape prevention and crisis center. The 24-hour center counseled women who had been assaulted and offered escorts to take them to a doctor, hospital or to the center. Her work with battered women led to her getting her law degree.

“At the rape crisis center, we started going to court with battered women and acted as their advocate,” Myers said. “An attorney threatened to have me prosecuted for the unauthorized practice of law for appearing in court with the women. I went to law school so I could legally represent battered women without fear of going to jail.”

When she went to work for the Memphis Area Legal Services, the Commercial Appeal reported on her challenging the courts for being insensitive to abused women who tried to prosecute their assailants. Today, domestic violence is seen as crime. In the seventies, judges often looked the other way. Protective injunctions were more difficult to get, unless the victim had filed for divorce. Myers worked with the state legislative to expedite the process.

Myers also pushed for a victim advocacy program to help guide victims through the system. Since then, such programs have become vital parts of most local law enforcement agencies.

In April 1986, Myers opened a free legal clinic in Nashville in the old Merchant’s Hotel, which had been converted to a storefront ministry. Her clients were poor and homeless. They lived on the riverbanks, in vacant buildings, cars, parking lots, alleys and rescue missions. Many suffered from alcoholism and drug addictions. Cases ranged from domestic matters to criminal cases.

“When I started that practice, there were no advocates for the homeless,” she said. “You were considered, well, subversive if you were on the streets advocating and helping for these people. A lot of these people who were homeless had physical and mental disabilities. I felt their civil rights were being violated.”

Under the “Environment” section were a stack of clippings from the Pensacola News Journal concerning the clean up of Escambia Wood Treating Company on north Palafox Street.

In 1992, EPA hauled an estimated 250,000 cubic yards of soil laden with creosote and other carcinogens. Those living in the surrounding neighborhoods of Rosewood Terrace, Oak Park and Goulding could smell the creosote as it was being dug up.  According to the daily newspaper, 64 people died from cancer in those three neighborhoods over the prior 10 years.

The environmental group Citizens Against Toxic Exposure (CATE) felt the EPA remediation plan was inadequate. Myers helped the group get grants to bring in experts to review it.

“I was an attorney with Legal Services of Northwest Florida,” she said. “I drafted a environmental grant proposal to The Florida Bar Foundation for environmental work for CATE.”

Through her efforts, CATE received over $100,000 in grants to hire experts to review the plans for the Superfund site. Those experts found the remediation plan wasn’t adequate to protect human health and repair the environment.

Not Slowing Down
After nearly 50 years of fighting for justice, Councilwoman Myers isn’t even close to slowing down. Her latest efforts have focused on how the city and county will use the millions of dollars of RESTORE funds that will flow into the community.

The RESTORE funds are coming from BP to help Gulf Coast areas impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Escambia County’s share is estimated to be over $100 million, which can be used for infrastructure, tourism, economic development and workforce development.

Myers wants to focus on workforce development. With the Center of Independent Living with Disabilities Resource Center and leaders of the African-American community, she has tried to develop a unified voice on the issue.

“We want workforce development to target the disenfranchised and underemployed people in our community,” Myers said. “We want these funds to help these groups, because when you raise people out of poverty, that is economic development.”

Myers said that her group will be more vocal in the coming months.

When asked about why she fought so hard for so many years for civil rights, Myers talked about the first person she met when she began her work with the homeless.
“It was the first time I had been among the homeless. I told him after we talked that it was nice to know him,” she said. “His reply was ‘You don’t know me, but I hope you know the Jesus in me.’”

Tearing up, she admitted that those words still touch her core. “I’ll never forget that statement,” said Myers. “I’m a Christian, and I hope that people can also see the Jesus in me.”

Even warriors need to occasionally shed a tear.