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Rod Watson: Frank Mesiah's legacy includes lessons in leadership

Not so fast.

Anybody quick to write off experienced leaders as out of touch relics with little left to offer new generations didn’t know Frank B. Mesiah.

Both before and after retiring following two decades leading the Buffalo NAACP, his voice commanded the respect that can only be earned over decades of uncompromising commitment.

You had to listen to him when he talked about police treatment of blacks because he had been a Buffalo cop and, in fact, also played an integral role in desegregating the Police Department and the city’s schools.

When he talked at a public forum a few years ago about redlining and the wealth advantages it bestowed on white families, it came from the knowledge gleaned by fighting that tactic decades earlier in his own Humboldt Parkway neighborhood.

When he talked about job discrimination, it was with a 20-year background fighting that very evil through his posts with the state Labor Department.

In other words, his passion for justice was based not just on the outrage of seeing or experiencing wrong, but also on the intricate knowledge of how injustice developed – even in a City of Good Neighbors – and how best to combat it.

He had a seat at the table of organizations ranging from the city’s fiscal control board and area economic development agencies to major businesses, health care institutions and neighborhood community associations – seats that can sometimes mute the voices of those who become too comfortable with the very people they are supposed to push.

But we never had to worry about that with Mesiah, who died Friday at age 89.

[Frank Mesiah, longtime civil rights leader and former NAACP president, dies at 89]

A year before the 2001 boycott against the Walden Galleria and other places in Cheektowaga accused of discrimination, Mesiah and the NAACP already had filed a complaint with the state alleging that the town’s two justices discriminated against black and poor defendants. And the filing was based not on suspicions but on facts: He had gotten the Erie County Bar Association’s program for indigent prisoners to conduct a study that formed the basis of the complaint.

Some 15 years later, he was still at it, sitting in on the "implicit bias" training a progressive police chief instituted in that very same town and recalling how, as a part-time college sociology instructor, he would take pairs of students of various races and appearances across the bridge to Fort Erie, Ont. His aim was to see who got hassled and who didn’t based on the biases of the border agents.

In short, he never missed an opportunity to educate the community about issues many would rather pretend don’t still exist.

Nor did he bite his tongue when doing it. When state senators created a gerrymandered election district in 2012 that lopped off most of Buffalo’s black community and all of Niagara Falls, he compared it to the worst tactics of Southern states concocting new voter ID laws, saying "the method is different, but the strategy is the same."

Fortunately for us, he hadn’t mellowed from the same strong voice who a decade earlier deplored the $50,000 entry fee into the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, the region’s business development group that was later renamed but maintained its exclusivity. As Mesiah noted, the pay-to-play fee meant business leaders were "afraid to ever consider the idea that some other people might have some insights."

In other words, he never let appointments to boards, committees and other lofty seats of power create amnesia about who he was fighting for. His last call to me early this year was about the misplaced focus on turning the Scajaquada Expressway into a scenic low-speed boulevard when transportation money could be better spent figuring out how to get Buffalonians out to suburban job sites.

That’s who he was: Someone whose wealth of experience gave him an insider’s knowledge, but who never lost the outsider’s perspective and was always ready to speak up for those who needed a voice.

While we watch a new generation of leaders across the country try to push aside those who came before – sometimes deservedly so – he was proof that real leadership ages well.

Anyone who thinks commitment, passion and effectiveness have to diminish with time just didn’t know Frank B. Mesiah.

Editorial: Buffalo loses a leader

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