By: Richard Stone
Les Kimber says it is simple and straightforward: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. “I learned this early, from my mother’s lips. I was raised in a God-fearing home, where universal respect and dignity were preached, and where we all knew our task in life was to make a better world.”
In 2010, these words may sound like platitudes. But to mean them, and live them, as Kimber has, is another matter altogether. He grew up in rural North Carolina at the height of the Jim Crow era. His parents were black sharecroppers, a mighty low rung in the southern social hierarchy. But his parents understood the power of education and urged their children forward, even in the all-grades-in-one segregated schoolhouse that was the only source of book learning.
Young Les took his parents’ aspirations for him to heart and excelled in his studies. “Our school principal, B.F. McCollum, was a scholar and impassioned educator. In the only work he could find, despite his advanced degrees, he leveraged his position to maximum effect. He made us yearn to learn, bringing in inspiring role models like his classmate, Mary McLeod Bethune, to speak to us.”
Les was offered a scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other eminent figures. “It was known as the Harvard of the South, but I almost turned it down. I’d been invited to tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Fortunately, my math teacher convinced me to try college.”
Morehouse was a revelation. “I’d never been off the farm, knew nothing but the outhouse.” And besides the living amenities, Les come under the guidance of one of the great Black educators of the 20th century, Benjamin E. Mays.
“Dr. Mays set the tone. We had mandatory 7 a.m. gatherings to practice public speaking and debate. We had an integrated faculty including French and German natives to teach their language. We had exchange programs with Emory, a white school. And each Sunday, Dr. Mays invited a small group of students to his home for tea, to teach us how to comport ourselves in society. He made sure we had all the tools to move with confidence in the world beyond Jim Crow.”
After Morehouse, Kimber fatefully attended graduate school in Washington, D.C.-fatefully because there he met his wife. “She was going to Howard, but when she graduated she went home to Los Angeles. I soon figured out it would be cheaper to move west and marry her than try to commute cross-country.”
In 1966, the couple moved to Fresno for family reasons. Destined to be an innovator in racial affairs, Kimber joined his father-in-law in establishing Fresno’s first Black-owned car lot. Then he was tapped by the Public Defender’s office to be its first Black investigator. From there, he was convinced by a visiting acquaintance to help found what is now the California Advocate, the Valley’s journalistic voice of the African-American community.
“We knew almost nothing about running a paper except the need for it. From then till now, there are issues not covered in the mainstream media-political corruption, police harassment and the like. And we needed a place to publicize the achievements, even the small successes, of our constituents to counter the hype about criminals and welfare queens.”
It seemed natural to move from journalistic advocacy into politics. Kimber was deeply involved in the campaign to establish districts for City Council elections. When the goals of that triumph were subverted, he fought for district-only elections instead of citywide voting. He then became the first African American elected under these rules. (Joe Williams had previously won an at-large election.)
Kimber reports that he loved his job on the Council, especially trying to parlay coalitions into job development for the West Side. When I came to Fresno in 1978, Kimber represented my district. In all my years here, he is the only one of “my” Council members to hold regular meetings with constituents. One result of these meetings was the annual Operation Cleanup, one of the few universally appreciated actions by our beloved Council.
Asked to assess the history he has witnessed during his 70-plus years, Kimber asserts, “I am an incurable optimist. I’ve seen the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling, Dr. King and the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts, the election of African Americans to high office and now, my God, to the presidency. I’ve seen Black culture be imitated and absorbed into the white world–look at Elvis-and the emergence of Black entertainment and sports superstars. All along the way, I’ve seen Whites risking their lives in commitment to social justice. I never think about ‘the good old days’; it seems only to be getting better. I can now genuinely envision the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream of racial equality.”
Optimist yes, naif no. Kimber knows full well what’s still out there (read his editorials in the Advocate if you don’t believe me). And recently he was the chief instigator of a nascent movement to dial down the outrageous rhetoric on the likes of KMJ talk radio and Fox TV, rhetoric that, with no great stretch of the imagination could provoke racial violence or even assassination.
But his philosophical preference is to be inspired by the examples of Roots and Maya Angelou, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, Nat “King” Cole and Dinah Washington rather than be brought low by the negativity of our world’s Rush Limbaughs. “Above all,” he says, “it’s the people I work with daily who truly keep up my spirits. My wonderful family; the minister of my church, Rev. Shane B. Scott, the people like you at the Community Alliance. When I see so much effort for good, how can I not be an optimist?”
Favorite Quotes from
Les Kimber’s Library
Abou Ben Adams (may his tribe increase!)
awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight of his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
an angel, writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace made Ben Adam bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said:
“What writest thou?” The angel raised its head.
And, with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” asked Abou. “Nay not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
And then he said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again, with a great awakening light,
And showed the names whom the Lord had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adam’s name led all the rest.
-James Henry Leigh Hunt
“Lowliness is a young ambitious ladder. whereto the climber upward turns his face till he obtains the utmost rung; he then unto the ladder turns his back looking into the clouds and scorning the base degree by which he did ascend.”
-Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
“There is a tide in the affairs of man when taken at the flood leads on to fortune.”
-Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
“Beware of those who shout glory hallelujah and at the same time are socking it to you in the name of the lord.”
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance and is a member of Citizens for Civility and Accountability in Media (CCAM). Contact him at email@example.com.