"A rare and sparkling jewel bringing joy and light forever."
That's how Milele Chikasa Anana described the meaning of the new name she had taken in 1994 as she embarked on a new chapter in her already remarkable life, a life that unfortunately ended Wednesday morning.
We at The Capital Times have known and admired this dynamo of energy since way back in 1974 when she took on the formidable task of running for the Madison school board.
It was formidable not only because an African American had never been elected to the board, but because 12 candidates lined up in the March 1974 primary for the three open seats. The then-Bettye Latimer, who had come to Madison during the tumultuous late 1960s, not only garnered the most votes among the 12 in the primary, but went on to finish first among the six left standing that April, collecting 25,547 votes. We were proud to have endorsed her.
Her school board term was cut short, however, when Paul Soglin, then in his first incarnation as mayor, named her the city's first affirmative action officer a year later. The city attorney declared it would be a conflict of interest for her to serve in both posts, so the City Council forced her to quit the school board if she was to take on the thankless job of convincing local government, Madison businesses and labor unions doing business with the city to open the doors to more women and minorities.
I was city editor back in those days and remember the stories like they were yesterday. Contractors, the building trade unions and even city hall department heads didn't want an "abrasive" affirmative action busybody poking her nose into their hiring practices. They complained incessantly to Soglin.
I chuckle today at the accusations leveled at the petite and pleasant Bettye Latimer back then, claiming that she was a loose canon, unreasonable, overbearing and unsympathetic.
That's not the person who has been a bright, shining, lovable light not only in the city's African American community for all her years, but an example of grit, determination and gentleness for the thousands who came to know her and the causes she championed. No one I've ever known cared more deeply for all people than Ms. Milele, as she has been affectionately called the past 25 years.
If, in her early years in affirmative action, she did have had a chip on her shoulder, she had every right. In our book on the 100th anniversary of The Capital Times, John Nichols and I wrote about what she and her family endured back then.
In April of 1975, just after she took the AA job, someone planted a burning cross on her front lawn. It was the second time that the Latimers were subjected to burning crosses right here in "liberal" Madison. Five years before, just after she and her husband James bought a home on Hillcrest Drive, a burning cross with a note that "n---- shouldn't live with whites" was tossed toward the house.
That probably goes a long way to explain her livelong crusade to bury forever the use of the "n" word, a crusade she carried on in the successful magazine she founded and nurtured until health problems got the better of her only recently.
She founded the high-quality UMOJA — meaning unity — to chronicle the "good" news from the "village." She believed that, except for sports, of course, the accomplishments of people of color were all too often ignored by the traditional media. So her UMOJA has told the stories of graduations, weddings, recognitions and promotions of African Americans in Madison for the past many years.
The magazine's covers have often been works of original art by local artists, launching several of them on promising careers.
She tirelessly did much of the work herself, ever present at major gatherings and celebrations involving the folks in her village, interviewing people in the crowd, taking pictures. Everybody knew she was there, nonstop as the Energizer Bunny.
What always fascinated me about Ms. Milele was her connections. She was at the historic Martin Luther King, Jr., "I have a Dream" speech on the National Mall in 1963. She was friends with Jesse Jackson and met with former President Barack Obama when he came to Madison.
She was a founder of Black Restaurant Week, active in the NAACP, the Urban League and the Black Chamber of Commerce. She helped organize the annual Kwanzaa celebrations and was one of Mt. Zion Baptist Church's more active members.
And the awards she received because of her unselfish work for others could fill a large room — among them, the coveted Martin Luther King, Jr., Humanitarian Award. Only a few months ago, she received the Manfred E. Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award, named for the former Madison rabbi who had escaped Nazi Germany.
In her typical fashion, she donated the $2,500 that came with the award to a fund for deserving young students of color she established with the Madison Community Foundation and the Goodman Community Center.
I've had the privilege in my 58 years in the newspaper business of getting to know hundreds of people from all walks of life — some have become good friends — but Milele Chikasa Anana was my favorite. She would often call and not only offer advice, but sometimes ask me for some.
She surprised me when she "crashed" the program we were holding to celebrate our 100th anniversary in 2017 to honor the paper with a resolution from the Black Chamber of Commerce and then proclaimed me her longtime friend who has been "a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day." Pretty over the top, I'd say.
That was the way she was — indeed a rare and sparkling jewel — and if we are smart, we'll work to make sure her spirit, her tenacity and her drive to make this a better world, for all people, will bring us joy and light forever.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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