Photo: National League of Cities
Florida Icon: Clarence Anthony
(CEO/executive director, National League of Cities; mayor of South Bay for 24 years, West Palm Beach; age 62)
I grew up in Belle Glade. We called it ‘the Muck.’ My family worked in the celery fields, sugar cane, corn, beans — anything that soil could create to feed the nation.
When I was a little kid, I would ride on these buses packed with migrant families. When I would see lights, I knew that was a city. Whatever city it was, I knew it was a place of opportunity for me and people like me. Now, in my job working for cities, towns and villages all over America, that’s how I approach my work, supporting the places that create opportunity.
I was always inquisitive. I was in the third or fourth grade and the teacher was teaching history, and I raised my hand: ‘The only time you talk about people who look like me is when they are slaves. Did any people who look like me do anything else?’ They threw me out of class.
One day, I was probably about 13 or 14, I was out working in the celery fields, and my hand got caught in one of the machines. I still have the scar today. I sat there all day because it happened in the morning, and the boss man wouldn’t let us leave to go the hospital. My mom looked at me, and she said: ‘You don’t belong out here.’ And from there I probably became one of the most successful family members because I got a job at Winn-Dixie.
I was in the 11th grade when Reidel was born. One of the reasons I stayed local to go to school was because of that responsibility. He went to the University of Florida. He played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For most of his life, he was the mayor’s son, and then it flipped, and he became a great football player, and I became Reidel Anthony’s dad. I was so so so proud of that and still am.
Florida Atlantic University was probably the first place I realized that I was poor. It was not because of the setting in Boca. It was because a social science teacher wanted us to look at the documentary by Edwin R. Murrow called ‘Harvest of Shame.’ It showed my friends in Belle Glade, my neighbors and probably myself in some of the clips of the poverty, the migrants and how the migrants were treated. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Miss Lucy there. That’s Beula.’ I knew those people. It stung me that I was so poor, but also how blessed I was. Many didn’t make it out.
In school, I became involved in student council — vice president and then president of the student body at Glades Central High School — so I was always that kind of kid, and my mom saw that in me. I was always a kid who said: ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that,’ and there were people who would say: ‘Oh, Clarence, be quiet. You’re not going to do that.’ But that steady drumbeat of belief from my mom was the difference in everything I did. Given how hard she worked and the many lines that we stood in to get powdered milk and eggs and cheese and things like that, there was no way I was going to let her down and not do what I needed to be successful.
I went home after graduate school, and I noticed that the community had really changed. I went to a city commission meeting, and I stood up during public comments and indicated that it seemed like a lot of drugs were being sold down the street from my mom’s house and that I really hoped something could be done about it. The mayor at that time said something a little snarky to me, like we have a lot of things were dealing with here. You already know that my mama is the No. 1 thing in my life, so, to me, that was the biggest thing the city had to deal with. I sat down, and a businessman who was there told me it was very impactful what I had said, and then somebody said I should run for mayor. Somehow, there was a movement. I won in March of 1984, and I was mayor for 24 years.
I experienced racism at every point in my life, whether it was personal or professional. There were things that occurred that were traumatic, that would hurt your feelings, that would motivate you, as well, and that’s how I tend to use those moments — to motivate me.
Partisanship is leaking into local government. Local officials are being asked to take partisan positions instead of focusing on local issues. I’m concerned by this trend of officials being harassed, physically and verbally, and bullied. We have to get control of social media misinformation. We have to go back and really focus on civility.
As a kid, I read a lot. When I became mayor, I knew if we were going to help our kids, we had to have a library in South Bay, so for five years in a row I lobbied our regional state legislators with the same speech. We didn’t have the money to build it, and I knew we couldn’t maintain it, so I fought to include it in the Palm Beach County library system. It opened in 1992, and it’s called the Clarence E. Anthony Library Branch of Palm Beach County. It’s probably the most impactful thing that I would say I did in that role. It’s changing lives. I go by there when I go home, and I see kids in there reading or taking out books, and I’m just so excited about that.
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