Early morning, September 1959. A young black man sat on a bus bench waiting for the 21 to arrive. He was on his way to Variety’s Children’s Hospital where he worked as a janitor.
A white and green police car cruised while he sat at the bus stop. The car circled the block and stopped a few feet away from the young man. The police officer rolled down his window.
“So, what are you doing?” he asked.
“Waiting on the bus,” the young man replied.
The police officer paused. He was not satisfied with the answer.
“Yeah, but what are you doing?” the officer asked again.
“Waiting. On. The. Bus,” the young man replied, confused.
The police officer smiled.
“Look I’m being a smart ass but so are you, so let’s start over. Why are you waiting on the bus at three o’clock in the morning?”
The young man explained his story to the officer.
“Anybody who gets up to go to work at three in the morning would probably make a good cop. You should go down and take the test,” the officer replied.
That chance encounter helped Clarence Dickson decide to become a cop, later becoming the first black police chief of the Miami Police Department.
Dickson was born on June 17, 1934, the eldest out of three children. His father died when he was 12, and he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to help his mother provide for his younger brother and sister.
“I had several jobs that led to virtually nowhere,” he said. “I really, really, wanted an education and at 19-years-old I made a decision that the only way for me to help my mother and to hold on to my hopes for an education was to join the U.S. military.
After a stint in the Air Force he joined the Miami Police Department in 1960, facing institutionalized segregation and racism.
There were no black lieutenants, captains, or assistant chiefs, he said. Dickson added that black men were normally not allowed to attend the police academy or even walk into headquarters.
Out of 45 students in the class, only 13 remained, he said, and he was prepared to drop out as well. But a trip to headquarters changed his mind. He was shocked to learn that was the first black man to attend the police academy.
“After roll call, a black officer walked over to me and said ‘How they treating you over there rookie? Don’t let us down. We fought hard to get you in that academy, some even lost their job[s],’” Dickson said.
His wife, Gwen Dickson, added that his career did not come without difficulty. His work life seeped into his home life, creating dangerous situations affecting his family.
“At one point, we had police protection guarding our home 24 hours a day because the drug dealers put a hit (to kill him) on my husband because he was busting up all of their drug places,” she said.
Through the adversity, members of his family said they are inspired by his work.
“I admire my grandfather for knowing what he wanted to do and not letting any opposition deter him. Even when it became difficult he was able to keep his spirits up,” said Krisma King, Dickson’s granddaughter.
Dickson said he may particularly understand the Black Lives Matter protests.
“If you claim that you don’t know why ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not called ‘All Lives Matter’…If you have watched the dozens of police and civilians video recordings of police on black shootings, and still ask what’s all the fuss about?” he said. “You might belong in the pretend-to-be-ignorant category,” he said.
He said many people are afraid of police officers, and some police officers are afraid of the people they are supposed to protect. That’s why, he said, the black community started asking for black officers as soon as 1929.
“Let’s face it, some policemen should not be allowed to have authority over anyone, they should not be cops and they should not be allowed to carry a gun. But thank God, they are in the minority,” Dickson said. “But those well-behaved and well-trained cops are the ones who are promoted up the ladder and off the streets…that is the current dilemma…which is fixable.”