Farewell to one of the most important leaders in Columbia history
COLUMBIA, Mo 10/21/13 (Beat Byte) -- Almeta Crayton, a three-term Columbia City Councilperson and long-time voice for the dispossessed, not only in her First Ward neighborhood but around the community, died today after a long struggle with kidney and heart disease.
She was 53.
A single question guided her nine years on the City Council and many other community service activities, including the annual Everybody Eats Thanksgiving Day feast: Why did anyone in prosperous, enlightened, progressive Columbia struggle?
As the first black Council member in roughly 30 years, Crayton embodied an experience that was alien -- and fascinating -- to most Columbia residents. Reporters called it "Almeta Crayton’s world," where crack deals, abandoned houses, and shootings were part of daily life.To change "her world," Crayton tried twice to join the Council -- once in 1996, where she lost by a handful of votes; and again in 1999. "I got so tired of looking out my door and seeing the same problems, year after year," Crayton said. She held her seat for nine years, making good on her word to propose solutions to the problems outside her door.Hiring more police to fight crime; encouraging home ownership and neighborhood businesses; rehabilitating tumble-down houses to prevent blight; and a controversial teen curfew were among the many ideas Crayton suggested.Trying to navigate the dilemma of a comparatively rich community with a 20% poverty rate taught Crayton about nuance, irony, and double talk.
Along the way, she developed a flair for the pithy adage. "Don't use my people to justify your payday," she would tell non-profit groups seeking city money to fight poverty that mostly paid salaries.
Heralded after the Johnson Administration as a poverty-fighting equalizer, government -- Crayton knew -- was often the biggest impediment to progress among the poor.
Her 4-year-old son, born prematurely with lung and heart illnesses, prompted a question from her at a political forum over a common dilemma affecting low-income persons: If Almeta went to work and made more money, the government would cut her off from Medicaid.
"I would love to work. I want a job," Almeta said. But the loss of benefits -- from Section 8 rental assistance to Food Stamps -- actually made working a bad idea. "If you try to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it seems there is someone at the top of the hole to kick you back in," she said.
Crayton would accuse her own city government of hampering progress among the poor, with deliberate neglect of neighborhood infrastructure, sugar-coated with official double speak.
Most of all, though, Crayton led by asking questions. Some were about national issues: Why didn't more kids have jobs? Why were there two sets of rules, one for wealthy insiders, another for everyone else?
But most of her questions were close to home. Why does anyone in America go hungry on Thanksgiving Day? Crayton made it her life's work to, if not answer that question, ameliorate its effects.
After surviving a recall effort that partly questioned her ability to continue on the Council in the face of failing health, Crayton lost her seat to Paul Sturtz in 2008. She took the defeat as yet another opportunity, spending more time with her beloved Everybody Eats program, a Thanksgiving Day feast that this year -- its 16th -- will have a special purpose and honor:
Remembering one of the most challenging and important leaders in Columbia history.