- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

The first time I met D.C. community and statehood activist Loree Harris Murray, or “Miz Murray” as we called her, was in 1997. I had just been arrested for the second time in my life in two days — back to back.

I was scared, but I stood my ground as I was encouraged by this wiry, feisty woman, Mrs. Murray, who demanded that we “lock arms” and “don’t let go.”

Mrs. Murray, founder of the Near Northeast Citizens Against Crime and Drugs, died March 27 of pancreatic cancer, at age 88 at Washington Hospital Center.

Even when I participated in a parade for D.C. Emancipation Day on April 16, I could still hear, in my mind my “adopted mother” singing freedom songs, as she did on Aug. 5, 1997, which we spent in a D.C. lockup. And her fighting spirit continues to propel me in my work for full emancipation and freedom for the D.C. statehood movement, a cause that was dear to her, too.

When I met Mrs. Murray, the day after my first arrest at the White House, we had been arrested for disrupting a meeting of that very same Control Board at a church in Thomas Circle. I knew very little about the appointed group and knew even less about the details. But I knew I was angry that some people I have never met before had the power to wipe out our local government.

Just one day before, I had been arrested (for the first time) while protesting in front of the White House to oppose President Bill Clinton for authorizing the takeover of the management of the District of Columbia’s local government.The city had just been placed under the receivership of the congressionally mandated D.C. Financial Control Board.

As I recall, some very rough Metropolitan Police Department officers, dressed in riot gear, arrested about a dozen people, including Mrs. Murray and me. The officers knocked one man out of his wheelchair and a tall elderly man, who shielded him, was slammed to the ground, as I recall. Looking back, this was probably the most spirited arrest I have ever participated in. We were all mad.

We were taken to the 3rd District police station on 13th and V streets, in Northwest and paired up in cells with the men and women separated. After all the excitement, I started thinking that I had no idea what to expect or what I had gotten myself into, and now I can admit I was exhilarated but also scared.

Suddenly, I heard a woman’s voice singing a few cells down from me. “I ain’t gon’ let nobody turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round; I ain’t gon’ let nobody turn me ‘round,” Mrs. Murray, as it turns out, sang.

When she sang “We Shall Overcome,” we all joined in.

The police told us to stop after we sang a few bars, but I felt a lot more calm and certain that I had done the very right thing due to her leadership.

After an hour of so, we learned that the city had increased the fine for disrupting an administrative hearing to $300, and I started to wonder how I was going to get out of there.

Shortly thereafter, I heard several people approaching the cell that held my unseen civil rights songstress. They were warning her: “Mama, this is the last time … you’re not going to do this anymore,” and “you’re getting too old for this now.”

Their voices were firm but had a joking tone.

As she walked by my cell with who I later learned were two of her sons, I saw Loree Harris Murray for the very first time. She was a small, wiry woman, then about 76 years old.

Mrs. Murray and I became close friends after that. In a way, she adopted me. She invited me to all Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, family get-togethers at her Northeast home near Gallaudet University, and social events around the District, many having to do with political campaigns, Advisory Neighborhood Commission activities, or the “Free D.C.” movement.

I learned pretty quickly that Mrs. Murray was a total contradiction. She was feared by politicians; notorious D.C. drug dealers, such as Rayful Edmunds; and H Street developers. She spearheaded the “War on Rats.”

At the same time, she was beloved by all the children in the community, which included real and adopted grandchildren and great-grands, as well as welcomed adult orphans, like me.

Mrs. Murray was proud, independent, assertive and modest all at once. Until her last year of life, even after a quadruple heart bypass at 85, she strove mightily to keep her organization, Near Northeast Citizens Against Crime and Drugs, going. She graduated from the D.C. Senor Citizen Police Academy in 2006 while recuperating.

Her dining room wall was full of awards. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray told mourners at her funeral service that he would introduce legislation to name a Loree Harris Way in the community she held dear.

A former secretary for the Environmental Protection Agency, Mrs. Murray was in constant motion and worked constantly to improve her community. She rallied, organized and demonstrated to get rid of guns, opposed the death penalty and risked arrest so many times to achieve statehood and local self-determination.

Sometimes, Mrs. Murray even had a grandchild in a stroller or toddling along beside her at the protests.

“I’m not a racist, but I’m for my race,” she said often.

According to her Pilgrim Baptist Church obituary and published reports, Loree Harris was born in Kershaw County, S.C., in January 1921. She was raised in Pinehurst, N.C., where her father was a golf caddy. She married Robert L. Murray Sr., a D.C. public school teacher, who predeceased her in 2007. They had seven children, one of whom died in 1979.

Toward the end of her life, I knew Mrs. Murray couldn’t help but feel that the neighborhood and city she helped to change so greatly and make safer, had forgotten why life was much better. She was distressed that many of the newcomers didn’t come to meetings and, if they did, they didn’t know who she was or what she had done.

But she said, “They’ll be back when they need us.”

Here’s to “Miz Murray,” my mentor, second mother and friend. What a glorious life!

• Anise Jenkins is a community activist with Stand UP! for Democracy in DC Coalition.

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