“On the death of Lateef Islam”

2005 • The Weekly Beat

Published in The Weekly Beat, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., October 2005.

“Who died?”

The question came as I stood hunched over the railing of the Mansion Street bridge, drawing a few breaths of the cold October air before going back into the church, its air humid with grief.

“Lateef Islam,” I said.

The man had seen the streams of people in their Sunday best converging on Beulah Baptist Church at the corner of Mansion and Catharine streets while his companion was hunting for abandoned bicycles in the swollen Fallkill creek. He seemed surprised and a little sad when I gave him the news.

“Oh, Lateef,” he said, drawing out the syllables as he pondered the image. “They’re gonna need a big truck to carry that man.”

Lateef Islam, it is true, was a big man.

His stature never failed to make an impression. He was a man who could dwarf us in nearly every way – with his large frame as well as the seemingly bottomless depth of his voice, his commitment, his belief, his hope. I could hardly have imagined Lateef, the human being, any bigger.

But the man is gone. The story of his flesh and blood ended as the white shroud was folded over his body and the lid of the coffin slowly lowered.

I didn’t know the man well. I met him a handful of times, interviewed him by phone once or twice. Since leaving the Family Partnership Center, a pioneering organization he helped found, in 2003, he had been laying low, struggling with his personal and medical demons until his comeback at the Partnership under new president Joe D’Ambrosio. I knew his reputation, and had a pretty good idea of what his résumé would look like, but I didn’t have a grasp of why the man’s death was such a monumental event. After all, how many Poughkeepsie funerals rate a reporter and photographer from The New York Times?

For that, I turned to Peter Leonard, the board chairman of the Family Partnership who has been Lateef’s number one cheerleader in the past year (and harbors a penchant for philosophizing). Peter hasn’t been able to get Lateef off his mind either, I discovered. In fact, he’s convinced that in 50 years, Poughkeepsie will look back at the Lateef Islam era as its defining moment.

But why? Well, that’s the tricky part. “It’s hard to articulate. The word hasn’t been invented for people like Lateef,” he suggested. “Without really doing things, he made things happen around him.”

In tribute after tribute at Lateef’s funeral, I found that his name tends to appear in stories about the beginnings of things. “Before Lateef came into our lives, I think we were struggling as a community,” said longtime friend Julie Thigpen at his funeral.

At the beginning of Poughkeepsie’s arduous, ongoing climb up from the violence and despair that cleared its streets and choked its neighborhoods through the 1990s, Lateef was there, his booming voice leading the midnight marches up and down Main Street: “No more violence! No more killing!”

For Colette Lafuente, who marched beside him as mayor, it was one of his most enduring moments. “He was a big part of my Poughkeepsie,” she said, visibly struggling to hold back tears.

Bishop Debra Gause recalled watching the undesirables shrink from his presence. “You saw everybody dissipate as he came down the street,” she said.

At the birth of the Family Partnership Center, Lateef ensured the human service complex would be a resource, not just real estate. Allan Thomas, executive director of Family Services, the Partnership’s parent agency, remembered how Lateef himself may have been the greatest resource for families in need who came looking for help. “‘How do I make a difference? How do I stop what’s going on?’ Lateef knew.”

* * *

Inspiring as he was in life, Lateef was also achingly human. Each triumphant anecdote at his funeral was matched by a memory of his personal struggle. For every larger-than-life accomplishment, there was a reminder that at the end of the day, he was one of us.

There was his unpleasant 2003 ouster from the Family Partnership.

Denise Bolds, a city resident who grew up under Lateef’s tutelage, was at his side during his last days on this earth, sent to the Albany Medical Center by fateful coincidence as a medical social worker for somebody named Abdul L. Islam. Upon entering the hospital room, she experienced a startling revelation – Lateef had been going by his middle name all these years.

But the man before her was bedridden and dying, leg infected and liver failing. “I did not want him to let that sickness command him,” she said – and through it all, he was undeterred. “He wanted to get up out of that bed, because there was so much more he had to do. He said, ‘I’m not done. I’m not giving up.’”

“He often reached so far to heal others that he forgot to heal himself,” said Eileen Bull, a dean at Marist College who worked with Lateef during his tenure overseeing Marist’s prisoner education program at Green Haven prison.

* * *

But his life was one of the best arguments for a second chance that one could imagine. Growing up in Brooklyn, he followed the doomsday path that has led so many young black men to ruin in this nation. But his 11 years of hard time on a manslaughter charge were matched by another 11 at Marist, after a prison education and the Muslim faith turned him around and drove him to lead the program that had rescued him. From there his generosity, hope and charisma turned him into one of the most important leaders this city has seen.

His is a story that holds special resonance in the black community, which has long drawn strength from the legacy of another former convict who went on to inspire millions with the power of his words.

Gary Riley, a Green Haven alum who followed Lateef to Poughkeepsie, made the connection for everyone when he adapted Ossie Davis’ famous eulogy for Malcolm X.

“Lateef was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves,” he said. “

Lateef has not been assassinated, as Malcolm was, but his death must stir us to the same action. For a life lived with a purpose, the saddest ending is to discover you have lived it in vain. We would do well if, like former County Executive Lucille Pattison, we think of Lateef and feel ashamed of ourselves. “Our hearts are troubled today because he did not complete his mission,” she said. “We have let him down in many ways.”

Those who knew him said that when he died, they felt the weight of his mission fall from his considerable shoulders onto theirs. It will take many pairs of shoulders, all lifting together, to bear that weight, to lift it high so that all may see it and follow it.

“Let us renew our commitment to the vision he had for our communities,” said Pattison.

“We should always care for the people, and Poughkeepsie, like he did,” said Lafuente.

“Lateef was trying to get back to you,” said Bolds. “Please, do not let him down.”

“If you really loved my father, you need to help people the way he helped you,” said Jerrod Anderson, his son. “If you really want to know where Lateef at, he didn’t go nowhere. He’s in all of y’all!”

“He did his job!” cried Bishop Gause, the sound system at Beulah cranked to the hilt, booming to fill the church the way Lateef’s voice once filled our ears. “The rest of it is left to us!”

We must not remember Lateef Islam. We must follow him.

The body of Lateef Islam is gone. The spirit of Lateef Islam must never leave us.