After weeks of wandering along the rambling roads of the Deep South we rolled into the port city of Mobile, Alabama. The stories shared by Griot participants revealed the day-to-day dynamics of a semi-industrial port community. They also reflected the collective experience of systematic exclusion from the electoral process and city government. African Americans in Mobile did not achieve any representation in city government until 1985. It was taxation without representation. Griot participant Sam Jones is Mobile’s first African American mayor. He was elected in 2005 and is currently serving in his first term. The Honorable Samuel Jones owes his accomplishment, in part, to men like James H. Finley and others like him who gave their lives for the health and well being of their community, setting a bold example of possibility.
On our first day set-up at the Mobile Public Library we were joined by James Finley’s widow Joycelyn and their daughter, Dora. They came to record a conversation remembering what they called “the dark days.” Like mothers across Jim Crow’s America she made her children drink water and use the bathroom before they left the house, to protect them from humiliating and unsanitary facilities. Mrs. Finely said the Colored restrooms in downtown Mobile were so bad it was preferable to relieve yourself in an alley. It was extremely difficult for Mrs. Finley to talk about these experiences, yet her tearful words painted a beautiful picture of positivity and love in the face of negativity and hatred.
James Finley was a pharmacist who would come to own a string of drugs stores around Mobile. Griot participant Dr. James Tarver, a pharmacologist who owned a pharmacy and homeopathic research center in Tuskegee called The Country Store, explained that drug stores were once bonafide community centers. Unlike today, folks came to the pharmacy to discuss their problems and seek remedies and counseling for any number of aliments or dilemmas, physical or otherwise. As a successful businessman and prominent citizen, Finely began to use his position to help improve the conditions of his community. He came together with a group of friends and colleagues to form Neighborhood Organized Workers (NOW), a nonviolent direct action initiative working to obtain economic, civil, and human rights. With his friend Noble Beasley as president, Finley would serve as vice president of the organization.
During their StoryCorps Griot conversation Mrs. Finley and Dora remembered the march that would demonstrate NOW’s growing power and committed determination. Following the assassination of Dr. King, NOW organized a march to demonstrate their unflinching commitment to carrying on the fight. Mrs. Finley speculated that there were over a 1,000 people who turned up that day. Like cities across the country following the assassination, Mobile was not going to allow any activity in King’s name. The demonstrators were quickly arrested. Most of the women were immediately released, except for 13, including Mr. Finley’s pregnant wife and teen-aged daughter. After spending some time in a holding cell mixed in with male convicts, the women were paraded through the jail to “The Hole,” otherwise known as solitary confinement. Mrs. Finely remembers hostile guards grabbing and threatening to rape her daughter as she went hysterical, screaming for them to rape her instead. The 13 women were packed, “like a slave ship” into an 8×8 cell for 10 hours with no phone call, toilets, water or even space to sit, until James Finely could post bond to get them all released.
As a self-made businessman James Finley was considered dangerous by the Mobile establishment. His position provided him, among other things, with the resources to post bail bonds and organize with impunity. It was routine for white business owners to fire employees involved in civil rights activities, blacklisting them from seeking jobs elsewhere in the community. Finley was his own boss and a role model, that alone made him a target. The establishment was determined to break the back of NOW by bringing down its leaders. With no economic recourse the city brought its full weight to bear on Mr. Finley, harassing him, shooting up his stores and accusing him of a litany of trumped-up charges. This period of selectively persecuting her husband was what Mrs. Finley painfully remembered as her darkest days.
The charges ran the gamut from murder to drug dealing. The story of one of his trials confirmed a legend I had heard whispered before. One of the charges they brought against him was improperly filling prescriptions and dispensing narcotics. The principal witness in the case was a man named Dicky Diamond. I had heard legends of mercenaries of injustice who during the days of COINTELPRO traveled the country filing charges, and testifying to false claims against so-called agitators at the behest of local officials, and reputedly, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Mrs. Finely said Dicky Diamond was known to travel all over the South, paid to instigate violence and lie under oath so the government could lock up people like James Finley. On this particular day, Dicky Diamond was a little tired, and unprepared, having just gotten into town moments before he was scheduled to appear in court. When Diamond took the stand and was asked to identify the alleged culprit he fingered the wrong man. Luckily for Finley, Diamond missed his mark and the charges against him were dropped. Like a midnight raider, Dicky Diamond was gone as quickly as he came. Mrs. Finely said Diamond returned to Mobile years later and took his own life.
Years of false charges and trials put a serious strain on Mr. Finley’s finances as well as his family. In the early 1970s the government finally succeeded in breaking up NOW and sending both James Finely and Noble Beasley to prison. Finley was convicted of tax evasion. Like many well-to-do citizens he paid his maid in cash at the end of every week. He did not withhold taxes from the $25 he paid her, and did not report the payments to the IRS. Instead of just having to repay the back taxes he was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison and sent as far away from Mobile, Alabama as they could send him; the northwest corner of Washington state. Noble Beasley, now in his late 70s, is still in federal prison, serving a life sentence. He will die in prison. Within weeks of being released, Mr. James H. Finley, aged 49, died of a massive heart attack.
Despite his untimely and tragic death James Finley left a lasting legacy for his family and the people of his community. I realized the extent of his impact the following day when another participant described James Finley as her guiding inspiration.
Growing up in a time when the only visibly obtainable career options for young people were teaching or preaching, Mrs. Irmatean Watson lovingly recalled being called a problem child because she did not want to be a teacher or a homemaker. She wanted something different. James Finley and his brother, also a pharmacist, where models of what she could achieve. From a young age Mrs. Watson became determined to be a pharmacist just like them.
Mrs. Watson started working in Finley Drugs while still in high school. James Finley became her mentor, inspiring her passion through his example, advice, and tutelage. To celebrate her graduation from pharmacy school and successfully passing the state boards, Mr. Finley threw a party in her honor and announced that she would be promoted to manage one of the outlets in his drug store chain. After a period of hard work she saved enough money to buy one of his stores outright and make it her own. Located in one of Mobile’s poorest sections, Mrs. Watson said, “I became city hall to the people, the people’s voice.”
No doubt strongly influenced by the example of her mentor, Irmatean Watson was drawn to a life of public service becoming a true servant and protector of the people’s right to health and happiness. Slowly she became involved in local political campaigns. Her daughter joked that people used to say, if someone was running for office in Southern Alabama, Irmatean was probably involved.
In the 1980′s she was an integral part of the successful effort to restructure Mobile’s city government. Before 1985 the government had been entrenched in a system of power controlled by a mayor and three city commissioners who were elected at-large. The system represented the worst breed of nepotism and cronyism. After years of court cases and struggle Mobile was forced to reorganize its government to consist of a mayor and 7 city council members. The mayor is elected at-large and the council members are elected by their respective districts. 5 votes are required to approve city business, which is designed to ensure the representation of a majority of the cities neighborhood districts in all decisions. Mrs. Watson was one of the first African Americans, and notably one of the first women, to be elected to city government in the history of Mobile, Alabama.
The success and accomplishments of Mrs. Irmatean Watson are a living, breathing expression of the legacy of James Finley. Her story is another beautiful example of the importance of role models. Not role models on TV, but role models you can see and touch, and in turn be touched by the power of the example they set. I was told there are no records, roles or documents for the Neighborhood Organized Workers, and you won’t find this history in any book. Only by listening will the story be told. The life and legacy of James Finley lives on in the positive progressive movements of people working in the city of Mobile to ensure a better life for their community.