The Working Man’s Hero: Joseph Caleb Was an Activist, Labor Leader and Hero of the Black Working Man

By Luisa Yanez, The Miami Herald

Jun. 4–Joseph Caleb. Say the name and the bustling Liberty City community center comes to mind, but few in Miami-Dade today know of the man and how he earned such an honor.

Caleb was a king of the labor leaders in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a hero to local working-class blacks.

Then someone riddled his body with bullets. The ambush came in the parking lot of a northwest Miami-Dade apartment complex on Feb. 6, 1972, as Caleb shut the trunk of his Lincoln Continental.

It looked like a professional hit on the man who led the nation’s second-largest local, the predominantly black Laborers International of North America, Local 478 (AFL-CIO).

Who wanted the 34-year-old flamboyant labor boss dead?

Was Caleb the victim of union violence? Was it personal; a robbery?

Evidence pointed in different directions. Caleb felt the need to carry a gun, found in his front seat. Police said $747 was left untouched in his socks and the attack came as he left the apartment of a woman who had accompanied him on a business trip to Orlando.

Leads were scarce. No one talked. The union offered a $10,000 reward. There were no takers.

Miami-Dade detectives eventually identified one main suspect, a Fort Lauderdale man who belonged to another union. By then, that man, John Bennett, 35, was also dead, shot with a high-powered rifle and dumped on a southwest Broward County road.

Today, the Caleb case is officially closed.

With no trial, no verdict, no way to air or verify the true details of his murder, Caleb’s loved ones, his wife, Yvonne, and four children, were denied an emotional closure.

“I’ve heard it said that my father was killed because he was getting ‘too big for his own britches,’ ” Caleb’s son, Stanley, 47, who was 13 at the time, said. “In my heart, I know it was union-related.”

T. Willard Fair, head of the Urban League of Greater Miami, agrees. The two were tight. Fair was supposed to have been with Caleb on the Orlando trip but overslept. Fair has a theory. “I think he was killed by the union mafia after angering the big boys in charge.”

He suggested money as a motive. ‘If others in power at the union were getting paid, say $15, and Joe was getting $5, Joe was the kind of guy who would say: ‘I want $15, too,’ ” Fair said.

Caleb’s death rocked Miami-Dade’s black community. The rags-to-riches story of the Overtown hardhat, grandson of an Alabama sharecropper and raised by a single mom, struck a chord with many.

More than 4,000 mourners walked past Caleb’s casket as he lay in state at the union hall. It was one of Liberty City’s best-attended funerals.

Today, some fear Caleb’s memory is fading.

“I see other local black leaders being honored and Joe is never among them. This man did more for blacks in Miami-Dade than anyone else,” said Caleb protege Al Huston, 61, current president of the same union, renamed Local 1652.

SILENT PRESENCE

At the Joseph Caleb Community Center, a mural honors the late union boss, but many who stroll in to pay bills or attend classes and events in its auditorium know little of Caleb.

“I heard something about him, but I don’t remember who he is,” said Andre Hall, 27, who grew up nearby and came to pay a traffic ticket.

Rena Jackson, 50, of Carol City, who said “Caleb mattered,” blames his fading memory on an overall disregard for the contribution of blacks to the local history.

“This man did a lot for Afro-Americans here — but they don’t teach that in school,” said Jackson, who recently visited the center at 5400 NW 22nd Ave.

Joseph Caleb’s younger brother, Robert, 64, of North Miami, agrees: “Older people remember him; the younger ones don’t.”

That pains Caleb’s son, a member of his dad’s local.

“I wish the center would do more to honor my father’s memory,” said Stanley, a labor foreman at a 40-story condo construction site on South Bayshore Drive. “Maybe open a small office where kids can learn about him.”

As president of the large Teamster local, still housed at 799 NW 62nd St., Caleb swelled its dues-paying membership from 400 to 6,000, making it the county’s largest and giving him control of almost every local muscle worker. Caleb also fattened its coffers.

The 6-foot Caleb cut an imposing figure in Miami-Dade’s power circles. In his mod suits, scarves, gold cuff links and pinkie rings, he made an impression.

“We were both angry young men at the cusp of the civil rights movement fighting the system. And we both loved to wear these wild outfits.” Fair said of their friendship.

Fair said Caleb’s appeal was basic: “It didn’t matter how powerful he got, Joe never lost the common touch.”

Friendly and funny, he was always surrounded by a crowd. “Not because he was afraid for his safety, he just loved people,” Fair, 67, said.

Caleb cultivated influence as a rainmaker. He did favors. He paid bail and past-due rent. He put food on empty tables. Most of the funds came out of his own pocket. When he died, Caleb made $35,000 a year in salary and perks.

“His men,” as he affectionately called them, repaid him with their loyalty.

“Joe made the union powerful, but he really cared about people; it wasn’t just about our work, he wanted the quality of our lives to improve,” Huston said. “The men loved him for that.”

Caleb created his union’s pension plan, its scholarship program for the children of workers. He funded summer programs. He staged pro-worker demonstrations.

During his tenure — from 1963 to 1972 — hourly wages for union members more than quadrupled, from $1.15 to $5.30 hourly. That placed Caleb at odds with white contractors and developers who balked at his demands for “union-only” work sites and higher wages for his men.

Once when deep in negotiations with a white contractor, the man complained that he felt discriminated against by Caleb, his son recalled.

“Try waking up black,” the labor leader shot back.

Caleb wanted the best for his men, Huston said, retelling a favorite Caleb story. In the late 1960s, Miami Beach nightlife was hot, but those dining and dancing in fancy hotels were not working class blacks.

“One day, Joe announced that the union was going to host its annual Christmas party at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Us at the Fontainebleau!,” Huston recalled with a chuckle.

“Everyone got dressed up with their wives and headed for the hotel. They served us steaks and he put a bottle of liquor on every table. He made us feel special,” he said.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Caleb’s meteoric rise was sparked by an impulsive move one day when he was 21. In 1958, as a rank-and-file laborer at a Miami Beach worksite he jumped into a dispute when a black foreman was to be replaced by a white one. Caleb led a successful walk-out — and won the attention of union business manager Bernard Rubin, who became his mentor.

The young Caleb was made shop steward. A year later, he traded in his work clothes for a suit and tie when elected recording secretary. The gregarious Caleb was a hit with the membership. He ran for president in 1963 and won. He was 27.

Caleb evolved into a man to contend with, an effective community activist who rubbed shoulders with politicos and power brokers.

The Dade Better Government League voted him Outstanding Citizen in 1971. He chaired the Model City Advisory Board, an ambitious federal program to overhaul blighted neighborhoods.

Caleb’s political contacts grew ever more impressive, from the late Gwen Cherry of Miami, the state’s first black female legislator, to U.S. Sen. Claude Pepper, the longtime state lawmaker. When he died, Caleb was channeling his union’s support even higher, to Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, who thanked Caleb during a Miami stop.

Caleb’s murder torpedoed the union juggernaut he helped build. “The union was never the same,” Huston said.

Stanley Caleb said his family life also unraveled.

“My father’s death destroyed us; it’s like the lights went out,” he said. “I know my life and that of my two sisters and brother would have been different if he had been around.”

To help the Calebs, the union bought out the $32,000 mortgage on the family home on Northwest 91st Street.

Today, Yvonne Caleb, who never remarried and declines interviews, still lives in that same home she shared with her husband.

Miami Herald staff writer Larry Lebowitz contributed to this report.

—–

Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

Comments

comments

Comments 1

Rodney L. Chatmon says:
Why Mr.Robert Lee Chatmon Sr.was never mentioned in this story…