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Civil rights activist Georgia Jones-Ayres dies at 86

Community leaders mourn relentless social advocate

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(COURTESY OF BLACK ARCHIVES)

MIAMI – Georgia Jones-Ayres, a civil rights activist known for her efforts to rehabilitate young criminal offenders through a program she co-founded in the 1980s, died Tuesday at her home in Miami. She was 86.

Jones-Ayres mistrusted police officers -- at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was an active enforcer of segregation. But later went on to working closely with law enforcement, she said. The great grandmother said she  fought for survival against racism and economic oppression, because she wanted a better life for her children.

"My children don't have to drink in the black fountains as I did. When they go downtown, they don't have to go in the back and sit in the back to try on a pair of shoes," she told a historian. "They don't have to buy a hat and take it home because they cannot try it on.

"We have integration as far as the white man says it's there. My thing is to take what you have, make something of it and never be satisfied."

Jones-Ayres has received numerous awards, including the "Trailblazer" from Miami Police Department and the Civil Rights Advocacy award from the Florida Commission on Human Relations. Serving as chief of counter drug law enforcement until 2009, was one of the many public service posts she held. Most recently, she co-founded the Daily Bread Food Bank.

Injustice irked her. When she was 19, she saw officials seize the house that her grandparents built in 1916. The family was homeless, because officials wanted to use the land to build a school for white children. The school is now known as Allapattah Middle School, 1331 NW 46 St.

About 34 other families living in the area were also evicted to make room for whites. The Aug. 1 1947 incident became known as the "Railroad Shop Colored Addition," after the neighborhood that is now Allapattah  The abusive use of eminent domain would haunt her for the rest of her days, she said. 

The "urban renewal" that she said destroyed Overtown to make way for "South American businesses to come" was a nightmarish deja vu. When authorities drove the Interstate 95 and Interstate 395 through Overtown, she told a historian that she saw it as "the white establishment" displacing blacks once again.

"I resent it, but being a poor black there's nothing I can do about it but try and roll with the punches," she said.

In 1967, she developed a community relations council for the county police department and in 1969 for the city's police department. And she served as the regional director of the Miami-Dade Community Action Agency for more than a decade.

Jones-Ayres met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was inspired.

"I remember when Dr. King, before he became popular, came to the Greater Bethel AME Church on Eighth Street," she told the Miami Herald in 2011. "Even us colored folks doubted we could make it. He was so forthright."

And like him, she believed in non-violent dissent. She was a member of the choir at Mount Hermon African Methodist Episcopal Church, 401 NW 7 Terr., in Opa-locka. And she worked as an insurance agent for Atlanta Life Insurance Company from 1953 to 1983.

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When the white police officers who beat up Arthur McDuffie to death at North Miami Avenue and 38th Street, were acquitted, she said "she was angry as hell." The destruction and violence that followed felt like "another 1968" -- referring to a week of riots in Liberty City to protest living conditions and police brutality, as the Republican National convention took place in Miami Beach.

One of her sons went on to marry McDuffie's ex-girlfriend, she said.

Jones-Ayres believed in activism. In 1982, she worked with Judge Tom Petersen to open the Alternative Program Inc., a nonprofit organization that offered an alternative to jail time. The organization is also known as The Janet Reno New Chance Alternative School, 151 NW 60 St., near Miami Edison Senior High School.

Community leaders were mourning her death Tuesday. Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson said Jones-Ayers stood for justice and fought against injustice. She added that her work to help African-American males within the criminal justice system,  earned her the respect of the judicial and legal community.

For her service, she became the first African-American to receive the Miami Herald's Spirit of Excellence award in 1985.

"The disenfranchised found a voice through" Jones-Ayers, Wilson said. "She dared to make a difference and didn't care who objected to or disagreed with her remarks."

The program "has impacted hundreds of lives throughout Miami-Dade County and allowed many of them [first-time offenders] to become productive citizens of our community," Miami-Dade Chairman Jean Monestime said in a statement.

Over the years, she said she saw Miami-Dade turn into a "Latin community, controlled by Latins." And with the power shift, racism wasn't gone, she said. She was profoundly frustrated with the mismanagement of public funding that was supposed to help poor blacks.

"I don't know where the hell it [the millions in funding] went," she said adding that the director was convicted of misappropriation. "But that was less than $500,000 that he was tried for. And if millions came into Dade County, I don't know where it went ... Blacks didn't get it."

In 1992, she made the news for standing up for her grandson Victor Cobham, who said he was wrongly charged with possession and sale of cocaine. She went head to head against Judge Henry Ferro, whom she said brought up "that 1965 militancy" in her. The case was reassigned to Judge Catherine Pooler.

Over the years, she earned the respect of even the Cuban-American politicians, she sometimes detested.

In 2011, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado renamed a renovated six-unit building for teens transitioning out of foster care in Liberty City. It is now the Georgia Jones-Ayers Transitional Living Facility. Miami-Dade County public schools also recognized her service that year.

She "worked tirelessly to guide troubled young people away from the criminal justice system and encouraged them to lead productive lives," Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a statement Tuesday.

Jones-Ayres had six children. She is survived by daughter Debra Taylor, sons George Jones and Cecil Ray Jones, 9 grand children and 20 great-grandchildren.

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