The Price of Justice

The Dallas Examiner

“It’s been a sad week for me,” Commissioner John Wiley Price somberly reflected.

Ironically, his words had nothing to do with the impending FBI investigation threatening the Dallas  icon’s name and livelihood.

Instead, they referenced the star-studded festivities engulfing Washington, D.C. and the new Martin Luther King Memorial for the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington and “I Have A Dream” Speech.

“He wasn’t about the pomp and circumstance,” he said of King.

Price casually mentions a phone conversation from earlier in the week with Martin Luther King, III, who unsuccessfully tried to persuade Price to come to the nation’s capital for the festivities.

“I’m sad that we have not progressed,” he expounded, citing this year’s Pew Research Center report.

The report reveals that the wealth gap between Blacks, Hispanics and Whites is at a record high, with White households on average making 20 times more than Black and 18 times more than Hispanic households.

For a man who has spent the last 27 years of his life fighting for economic and political parity for minorities, the report is particularly disheartening.

Since 1985, Price has been Dallas’ Black Robin Hood. Instead of wielding a bow and arrows, he’s used protests, picketing and defiance to snatch economic and politic power from the system’s good old boys and thrust it into the hands of the marginalized and forgotten.

“John Wiley Price‘s record as a fighter for the underprivileged and for justice is legendary throughout Dallas and the State of Texas. He is the vanguard in the fight for those who are discriminated against in their struggle to be invited to the great table of opportunity,” an excerpt from the webpage of the Kenyan school named in his honor reads.

The school was from Russell Fish who thought the school fitting given the work he and John had done together in the realm of education throughout the years as the duo tried to deter Dallas ISD from dumping the district’s worst teachers in Black neighborhoods  — a campaign that entangled them in a number of lawsuits with the urban school district.

“During that period, John was one of the few guys that stood with our group which was The Open Records Project. That’s how I came to know him the best — through a series of very nasty battles with the school district,” Fish stated.

He recalls being sandwiched between Price and Rev. Zan Holmes in the administration building for protection in the volatile fallout of former DISD Superintendent Sandy Kress’ resignation.

“I had John on one side, Zan Holmes on the other side. I was the last white man in the building. And John was gonna make sure nobody got a hold of Russell,” he recalled.

But Fish’s strongest memory of Price is from a session of Price’s KKDA radio show, “Talk Back, Liberation Radio.”

“There are not many people that know that he adopted two crackbabies. One of my clearest memories of him is [when] we were doing a show with Thomas Muhammad on education and I had gotten up and given my little rant. Muhammad had given his rant. John was in the process of giving his rant. He was punching the air with his right hand. What the people at home, sitting by their radios, couldn’t see was in his left arm he had two-year-old baby Nicolas. He was sound asleep. That’s a side of John that most people never see,” Fish said.

The most common image of Price is that of a ranting, belligerent, intimidating man with cornrows and a penchant for bowties. Today, many can’t understand why, despite the ongoing investigation, some in the Dallas — black and white — remain committed to Price. Even in the Black community, many don’t know or have forgotten his role in changing the landscape of Dallas, for Blacks in particular.

“John has been an awesome vehicle for change and betterment for Black people in the Dallas area. Of course, he picked up some enemies along the way. That goes with the territory. We all fall out at different times. But you can’t get away from the overall piece and that is that Black folk were really in charge in Dallas. All you had to do is mention The Warriors or John Wiley Price. . .and people just changed,” stated Thomas Muhammad, president of the Dallas chapter of the National Black United Front.

Whitewashing Billboards

Muhammad, who was one of the original Warriors, vividly recalls the tobacco and alcohol billboard whitewashing campaign in the spring of 1990 that marked the start of Price’s protests.

“I had a crew and he had a crew and we painted a number of boards until I received a call from our attorney, James Belt, Jr. who instructed us to stop painting and get to the front of Fair Park,” Muhammad stated.

At Fair Park, Price and two members of his crew, Zachary Thompson and Vincent Hall were caught by Dallas policemen. Despite Thompson’s and Hall’s objections, Price pled guilty to criminal mischief charges and took the case for everyone.

“His position was he called for the protest, he led it, people did what he asked them to do, therefore the responsibility stops with him,” Muhammad stated.

Media Protests

The decision would come back to haunt him later that year, when a run-in with a defiant driver determined to roll through Price and The Warriors’ NBC Channel 5 picket line rendered Price in violation of probation. He was later sentenced him to 75 days of jailtime, a sentence that was met with daily vigils outside Lew Sterrett’s walls organized by Muhammad that drew a crowd of 400 on the night of  Price’s release.

The encounter became known to public as the windshield wiper incident, a story spun by most media accounts as a justifiably panicked minivan driving housewife who Price sought to intimidate.

But Muhammad remembers the incident differently.

“He was hanging on because this woman was trying to run him down, because he was standing in front of her. I’m standing there with the bullhorn chanting and it’s about six or seven of us,” he recalled.

The decision to picket Dallas media outlets was sparked by the complaint of a local nurse who called into Price’s radio show offended by a WFAA Channel 8 story that tied the city’s high taxes to bustling birth rates.

“They showed a Black female on a table with her legs spread wide open, giving labor. . . Of course, the commissioner called for action. We decided that we’d send a letter to Channel 8 calling for an apology,” Muhammad expressed.

Channel 8 gave word that the story was perfectly fine and felt that no apology was warranted.

In response, Price and The Warriors launched the group’s first protest. Over the next six months, every morning, five days a week, Price and fellow picketers would rise early to protest the station for a few hours, despite Channel 8’s belated on-air apology for the story.

“But the commissioner felt it was too little, too late,” Muhammad asserted.

For Price, the daily morning protest meant racing home to swap picketing gear for a suit and tie for work at the Commissioners Court. Sometimes, however, time didn’t permit a wardrobe change.

“It wasn’t nothing for me to show up to court in my picketing attire. . .Whatever it took,” Price added.

Price and his protest of the news quickly became a news sensation.

“He was such a hot news commodity that all news organizations wanted exclusives and wanted interviews with him. We decided as a strategy that he would not talk to any press unless they were Black reporters. At that time, WFAA had none,” Muhammad stated.

To ensure future news access, WFAA brought back Gary Reaves, hired Deborah Duncan and Renee Syler and brought in Buff Parham as the station’s general manager.

Fresh off their win at WFAA, Price and the protestors left WFAA and began picketing Channel 5. Four months later, the group had secured the positions of more Black journalists and moved on to Channel 4.

“It took us only one day to get Channel 4 right,” Muhammad declared.

As soon as Price and The Warriors took their places outside Channel 4, security notified company executives, who promptly came down to invite Price inside for negotiations. By the day’s end they had secured a renewal of Shawn Raab’s contract, which was just about to expire, and had agreed to promote Raab to a senior reporter and anchor position for the channel.

The roots of the protests’ success is best summed up by the words of a chant that often rang from The Warriors’ picket lines: “No justice, no peace. You may think that this is funny. No justice, no peace. But it’s costing you money.”

The money The Warriors referenced was the tens of thousands of dollars the city shelled out every month for public safety officers watching the group. To curbs such expenditures, councilmembers and city staff often acted as the middle men between protestors and companies, urging them to quickly come to an agreement.

Tales of a Warrior

Warrior Mattie Thompson, who marched with Price from the very first protest outside WFAA to the last protest outside Townview, recounted the threatening overabundance of police on horseback, bikes and foot that guarded her and the other protesters on her first day of picketing.

“I didn’t know what to expect but I was very much taken aback by all the police officers that were there. There were more police officers there than there were Warriors,” she recalled.

The retired schoolteacher who spent 43 years of her life teaching music and counseling elementary schoolers in Irving attended St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church with Price and donated her weekends, summers and winters to marching with The Warriors.

“People on the picket line were from all over. They were all different ages. There were seniors, there were little triplets that were kids . . . I felt like it was my responsibility, my civil responsibility, my social responsibility, to help in whatever way I could,” Thompson noted.

Warriors came from all over the metroplex. Some, like Thompson, knew Price from church. Others learned of the group through the Dallas County Community Luncheon tri-chaired by Price, Muhammad and Belt, Jr. Many were inspired through Talk Back to get involved.

““All you had to do to join The Warriors is decide you wanted to be apart — your feet determined your registration,” Price affirmed.

Thompson’s Irving home still holds the stock of gloves, mufflers and scarves she accumulated over the seven years of protesting with The Warriors. The plastic used to prevent frostbite was only recently tossed away. Thompson regards the time and its notable progress with pride.

“I’m generally a peace-loving person, for the most part, but I’m very much for justice and equality. He was encouraging to all of us. I’m sure that there are people who never would have gone to march on the picket line had it not been for him and his leadership,” she said.

The Warriors numbered about 100 picketers and about 100 others who worked behind the scenes writing letters, researching and financing the causes, some of whom never didn’t and couldn’t stand on the picket lines.

“Everybody can’t fight the same battles in the same way. But they do their part wherever they are.  Some of those you saw on the picket lines – they gave their time because they didn’t have the financial resources but they believed in the cause,” noted Cheryl Smith, host of KKDA’s Reporters Roundtable.

Smith, who served as Price’s assistant from 1990 to 1995, was the one who named the group The Warriors.

“We were looking for a name that described a group that was resilient, that was tenacious and able to overcome obstacles and remain focused on what they’re mission was. That’s how the name came about,” Smith said.

Police Protests

Warrior Carolyn Thompson’s (no relation to Mattie) sacrifice symbolizes that definition. After working all night at the post office, a tired Thompson would often press her way to the picket lines, sometimes seven days a week.

“I would get energy. I’d know I’m going out there and going to fight,” Thompson said.

She joined The Warriors in 1992, after personally witnessing the power of activism. When Fox 4 News was looking for a new sports anchor, Thompson called into Smith radio show to state that the new hire should be African-American.

“What are you going to do about it?” Smith challenged.

Following Smith’s suggestion, Thompson wrote and called the news station with her thoughts. She received a call back Fox 4 News saying that they were in the process of interviewing and that several African-Americans were being considered. Max Morgan was selected.

The individual victory inspired her to join a larger cause with The Warriors.

“It makes a difference . . . when you let people know your position,” she said.

Her first taste of picketing took place outside the Pleasant Grove Jim Miller Southeast Police substation, where The Warriors were protesting police hiring and promotion practices and police brutality.

“I had never done anything like that before,” Thompson chuckled.

But she knew that her presence and voice was important for people like Sara Mokuria, who had seen the ills of the police up close and personal. That year, ten-year-old Mokuria watched the police slay her dad.

“The police had my mom wake me and my little sister up. My little sister was one at the time. We were all standing at the door and they killed him in front of us,” Mokuria recounted.

The officers in question were never charged. The case never made it beyond a grand jury. But Mokuria is grateful for the attention Price and The Warriors called to its injustice.

“As a ten-year-old girl, I didn’t have that ability, the language or anything else to be able to fight back. Out of the whole city, he was the one who was there,” she said.

Now, Mokuria is fighting for Price. She heads the Justice for John Committee’s Public Outreach sub-committee.

“Beyond the fact of this being a targeted investigation on John Wiley Price and this being a clear point in a historical legacy of attacks on black leadership, me, personally, I also am involved because of his commitment to my own personal story,” she added.

Joyce Ann Brown’s Story

Joyce Ann Brown can certainly vouch for Price’s commitment to improving the personal stories of others. Thanks to him, her own life story changed dramatically.

After serving nine years in jail for a crime she didn’t commit, Brown was eager to reclaim her destiny. But a prison record, even a exonerated one, meant months of search for work, to no avail. She was unemployed when Price struck up a conversation with her at one of KKDA’s Family Breakfasts.

“That particular day he asked if I was working. I told him I was looking,” Brown recalled.

Price promptly gave her his card and told her to give him a call. One day passed. Another day trickled by. The third day after the encounter, Brown picked up the telephone and dialed the number to Price’s office.

Later that same day, she stood in Price’s office answering questions as he bustled back and forth between the ringing telephone and piles of paperwork. Eventually, Price suggested that Brown have lunch on him, telling her he would give her a call.

“I really didn’t expect for him to call, but I said at least I did get my foot in the door,” she admitted.

By the time Brown made it home, there was a message on her answering machine from Price telling her to be at his office at 8:30 in the next morning dressed to work.

“And with that, I went for Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price,” Brown said.

From a corner of a round table in Price’s office, Betty Culbreath trained Brown to be Price’s assistant. But two months later, when Culbreath was out of the office when the checks were delivered, Brown made a startling discovery.

“I took the checks, put them in an envelope, put them on everybody’s desk, including the Commissioner’s check. But there wasn’t a check for me,” she noticed.

She also realized that while the Commissioner’s signature was always on her checks, someone else signed everybody else’s.

“Why doesn’t he sign all the other checks?” she wondered.

When Culbreath returned, Brown asked what was going on.

“And so she said, ‘You really didn’t have a job. He created a job and he was paying [you] out of his pocket,’’ Brown reflected.

Refusing to accept charity, Brown asked that Culbreath transfer her to a lower paying position as Extra Help for the office.

“I will work and show you what I can do and I will make my way up,” Brown says she told Price.

Over the next nine years, Brown worked her up from extra help at Price’s office to his secretary to his general assistant and finally his administrative assistant, leaving in 1999 to run Mothers (Fathers) For the Advancement of Social Systems, Inc. full-time.

“If it had not been for Commissioner Price, there would be no MASS, which assists and helps formerly incarcerated people get back up on their feet and become productive citizens in society,” she declared.

Since 2003, the organization has served over 5,000 new clients.

“Trust me, if the commissioner had not created an opportunity for me to do what I’m doing today, none of those people would have been assisted and helped,” Brown reasoned.

Her words could easily be multiplied out to countless other Dallasites who’ve directly or indirectly reaped the benefits of Price’s defiant protests, years after their end. All of Dallas County’s department heads are African-American, save one. Both Dallas’ police and fire chiefs are African-American. Even today, the brown faces of reporters seen while flipping through local news stations bear his fingerprints.

“I think it takes a really special person to serve to that extent and to affect that type of change. I can affect change in children’s lives, but this is affecting change on a much broader scope. People of all different ages and all different ethnicities—not just African Americans—have benefited from it. I think everyone has benefited from it, whether they realize it or not,” retired educator, Mattie Thompson observed.

One Response to “The Price of Justice”

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  1. Cops & Robbers « The Re-Education of LaShonda - August 19, 2012

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