Jesse J. McCrary Jr.

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In the late 1960s, he was ''the first Negro;'' in the late '70s, ``the first black.''

From the time he led Tallahassee college kids in noisy lunch-counter sit-ins, Jesse J. McCrary Jr. was a Florida civil rights trailblazer. The attorney and former Florida secretary of state died Monday of lung cancer at 70, nearly three weeks after being admitted to North Shore Hospital.

In 1967, McCrary became ''the first Negro'' to serve as an assistant attorney general, so described in press accounts of the day. Three years later, McCrary represented Florida at the U.S. Supreme Court -- the first black lawyer to speak there for a Southern state.

His task: asking the court to uphold a state law permitting defendants in non-capital criminal cases to be tried by juries of six rather than 12.

The case was Williams v. State of Florida, and he won.

''I'm elated,'' he told the Miami Herald. ``We in Florida are abiding by constitutional standards. This is the real reward of the whole thing. It strengthens the whole administration of justice as it relates to jury trials in Florida.''

His reaction was typical of his perspective.

''He was not selfish for himself,'' said Georgia Ayers, a long time activist. ``It was what he could do for the community as an attorney.''

''He was one of the great warriors [who] never, ever hesitated to go on the civil rights battlefield,'' added former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek. ``He left us a message: regardless of what happens to you in life, you keep pushing.''

In 1978, then-Gov. Reubin Askew appointed him Florida's first black secretary of state, making him the first black in the cabinet since Reconstruction.

''I used to kid that Jesse made the [judicial] appointments and I just signed them,'' said Askew. As governor from 1971-79, he named the state's first black Circuit Court judges, including the late Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr., McCrary's one-time law partner, who went on to become a federal judge.

''Jesse helped me get elected...We were close friends for a long time and I will miss him,'' said Askew, who teaches public administration at Florida State University. ``He was a great public servant that a lot of public servants can emulate.''

In 2003, two years after McCrary suffered a disabling stroke, the Florida House passed a resolution honoring him as ''a living legend'' and a ``preeminent authority on constitutional law [who] won 10 landmark cases presented before the Florida Supreme Court.''

One of that court's justices once told Askew that McCrary ``was the best prepared lawyer in the state when he came before him.''

McCrary was a skilled wordsmith, a past University of Miami and Florida Memorial College trustee, an enthusiastic -- if uninspiring -- golfer and, in 1963, a bona fide heartthrob. That year, Ebony magazine named the Baptist preacher's son and Army veteran one of the nation's most eligible bachelors.

Jesse McCrary was born Sept. 16, 1937, in Blitchton, Ga., a dot-on-the-map Marion County town. His father, The Rev. Jesse J. McCrary Sr., raised his son to believe that he could and must rise above the limits that a segregated society would try to place on him.

He attended Ocala's Howard Academy., where he played baseball, basketball and quarterbacked a championship football team.

He was a star debater and drama-club member who'd grow into what longtime friend and fellow FAMU law school alum Elbert Hatchett called ``a spellbinding speaker . . . His diction was perfect.''

''He would give you the impression that you were hearing a minister speak,'' added his wife, the former Margaret Mixon, whom he married in 1981.

It was a second marriage for both. Each had a daughter, and they had a daughter together.

Hatchett and McCrary met as FAMU undergraduates in 1958 when, said Hatchett, McCrary ''was always in the middle'' of civil-rights demonstrations. He demanded that Jesse be a good student and help others.

An ROTC cadet, McCrary went from FAMU to the army, where he served in military intelligence, after which he returned for law school, graduating in 1965.

''He was a shot in the arm to the whole law school,'' said Hatchett, of Pontiac, Mich. ``He made everybody . . . feel like we had special destinies to fulfill.''

McCrary's destiny was public service, although ''he could have written his own ticket with any big firm,'' Hatchett said. ``He preferred to stay on the ground and address some of the everyday issues that impacted have-not black people, and I don't think he ever considered abdicating that responsibility that he was born to.''

Tapped for Attorney General Earl Faircloth's staff in 1967, he handled criminal appeals and advised the state Racing Commission. He told The Miami Herald at the time that he remained concerned about the underclass because ``none of us is really free until all of us are free.''

The previous year, he'd been a passionate voice during racial unrest in Pompano Beach, his every word making headlines.

''You tell us that you have a job opening for a machinist, but where in hell can we find a Negro machinist if you don't let him go to school?'' he said that June, warning of ``a long, hot summer . . . The germ of discontent has been sown and inequities exist.''

In private practice with the firm of McCrary, Ferguson and Leethrough the early 1970s, McCrary issued a controversial report on the failings of Opa-locka's city government and police department, represented the Dade County School Board -- its first black attorney -- and was appointed by Askew as a Florida Industrial Commission judge.

Earning $32,000, he was the state's highest-paid black official.

Another longtime friend and golf buddy, University of Miami law professor H.T. Smith, said that McCrary's father ``instilled in him to stand up for what you believe in, and that those who are given the most have a responsibility to give to the least.''

He returned to private practice in 1973. Five years later, Askew tapped him again -- for secretary of state, filling the unexpired term of Bruce Smathers, who resigned to run for governor.

In the interim, McCrary had served on state committees studying judicial reform, capital punishment, constitutional revision and and worker's compensation.

By 1979, McCrary was back in Miami practicing law, and by the mid-1980s he was routinely listed as a member of the city's power elite. Still, in 1993, when Smith was leading a black tourism boycott against the City of Miami, his friend ``called me every morning at 7:15 for 1,000 days providing intelligence on what the business community was thinking, responding to, doing and saying. He never turned his back on the community.''

The two had worked together to bring single-member districts to school board.

In the mid-1990s, he represented County Commissioner Miller Dawkins in the Operation Greenpalm public corruption scandal. Dawkins plead guilty to bribery charges and was sentenced to 27 months in prison.

McCrary said he was proudest of rescuing JESCA, the community-services organization, from financial ruin. He took over as unpaid chairman in 1991 and 18 months later, left it in the black.

Even the stroke couldn't hold him down for long.

''We'd take him to the golf course and he'd ride around a lot,'' said Smith. ``But then he would walk on his own a little to remind himself and us that he was still Jesse McCrary.''

In addition to his wife, Jesse McCrary is survived by daughters Bonnye Fields of Atlanta, and Jessica McCrary and Pamela Walton of Miami, and sisters Celestine Woodson and Susan McCrary of Houston, and Alyce Major of St. Petersburg.

Services will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday at New Birth Baptist Church, 2300 NW 135th St.

Published in the Miami Herald on Oct. 30, 2007
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