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Miami Black Leaders Protest Superintendent Choice

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Bolstered by what they called a successful one-day boycott of the Dade County, Fla., schools, black leaders in Miami vowed last week to turn their protest over the appointment of a Hispanic superintendent into a consumer boycott of local businesses not owned by blacks.

"If things don't change in the next few weeks, we're going to call for the boycott of all Dade County. This Christmas, the African-American community will buy only African-American," asserted the Rev. Victor Curry, a boycott leader.

"We're telling people we want respect," he said. "We're just tired of getting slapped in the face, and we want our fair share."

But the black administrator whose failure to win the top district job touched off the boycott urged reconciliation between the African-American and Cuban-American communities.

"I'm hoping we can pull it together now," Deputy Superintendent Tee S. Greer said in an interview late last week.

Mr. Greer, a 31-year district veteran, had served twice as interim schools chief before being passed over for the superintendency last month in favor of Octavio Visiedo, a Cuban-American deputy superintendent with 17 years' experience in the Dade County schools.

School attendance on the day of the boycott, Nov. 6, dropped to 70 percent, according to James Fleming, an associate superintendent. Boycott leaders claimed that 80 percent of the district's black students complied with their call.

Enrollment in the system is 46 percent Hispanic, 33 percent black, and 20 percent white.

Seventy-two percent of the district's bus drivers also took the day off, forcing many parents to arrange alternative transportation, according to Mr. Fleming. Fifteen percent of the district's teachers, accounting for about half of the black teaching force, stayed away from school, he said.

Skeleton staffs taught virtually empty classrooms at the district's predominantly black schools, administrators and boycott leaders said. At Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, only 298 of the school's 826 students showed up for class, said Lora J. Manning, the principal. Fifteen staff members stayed away.

A rally at the district's headquarters on the day of the school boycott brought out 3,000 protesters, according to Miami police estimates. Mr. Curry put that figure between 6,000 and 8,000.

Leaders of the protests said last week they would not call for another school boycott.

The Oct. 24 appointment of Mr. Visiedo followed the sudden death of Superintendent Paul Bell on Oct. 16.

According to Mr. Greer, the school board--with one black, one Hispanic, and five white members--had not had Mr. Visiedo on its original list of candidates. He added that he did feel the new appointee was less qualified for the post than other contenders.

School-board members have said they do not deny Mr. Greer's qualifications, but argue that Mr. Visiedo's management style is more in tune with the needs of the nation's fourth largest school district.

But black leaders, attributing Mr. Visiedo's appointment to racism, have called on the superintendent to resign from his post. Mr. Curry would not say if the consumer-boycott threat hinged on the superintendent's response, adding that the specifics of the boycott would be decided at a meeting of black community groups and churches late last week.

Critics of the protests, while expressing understanding for the black community's cause, argued that such tactics were counterproductive.

"They were intending to send a message to the powerful institutions in Miami that they are upset at what they see as unfair policies," said Max Castro, executive director of Greater Miami United, a group that promotes ethnic harmony. "But in a sense, the only ones getting hurt are the school kids because they got one less day of education."

Mr. Greer said he disapproved of keeping children out of school, but he and black leaders said the boycotting students received a valuable Election Day civics lesson.

Children accompanied their parents to the polls and to the peaceful noon rally. More than 115 students attended class at Mr. Curry's Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, Mr. Curry said, and similar programs were set up across the county.

The dispute over Mr. Visiedo's appointment is the culmination of a series of incidents that have raised tensions between blacks and Hispanics in Miami, according to state Senator Carrie Meek.

The shooting of two black motorcyclists by a Hispanic police officer in January 1989 set off days of rioting, the fourth such incident of race-related civil disorder in the decade. Earlier this year, the snubbing of visiting South African black leader Nelson Mandela by Miami city commissioners upset by his favorable comments on Cuba's Fidel Castro sparked an ongoing black boycott of county hotels.

Mr. Castro of Greater Miami United said that the political tactics of local black leaders have made many Hispanics skeptical about black grievances. He said Hispanics see blacks charging racism too quickly and thus debasing the charge.

"You cry 'wolf' too often and nobody listens," he said.

But he stressed that most Cuban-Americans have not taken sides in the debate over Mr. Visiedo.

Mr. Greer, meanwhile, said he would rather play the role of educator than civil-rights leader.

"I'd rather not use the terminology of race," the administrator said. "That's been the claim in the past, and that only makes it worse.''

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