By Jim Schutze
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Minkah has tried not to let himself be consumed by bitterness. On a breezy spring afternoon, he took a visitor to the two-acre lot where he still hopes to build his skating rink. Once again it is clogged with overgrown grass and weeds. The United Front of Dallas stopped mowing many months ago, when its project seemed to be moving full steam ahead.
"We didn't think we needed to keep it up," Minkah says wistfully. "We thought we would be building by now."
Fahim Minkah was born Fred Bell 57 years ago in the deeply segregated East Texas town of Marshall. The son of a farmer-turned-entrepreneur who launched his own wood-pulp hauling company, Minkah graduated from high school with honors and was offered a track scholarship at Southern University in Louisiana.
In a vain attempt to escape the rampant racism of the South, Minkah joined the Air Force instead of heading off to college. Minkah says he quickly discovered that the military bred its own strain of racism. On several occasions, he was punished more severely than white soldiers for similar infractions. He trained as a jet mechanic and starred on his base's judo team, but after two years of the military he was fed up. He received an honorable discharge.
During his first couple of years out of the service, Minkah built and drove race cars. He held down two jobs, trying to save money to go to college. He returned to Texas, became a certified auto mechanic, then entered the University of Texas at Arlington on a track scholarship. Minkah hoped to become a civil rights attorney, but got swept up in the activism of the times--"a tangent that zapped my adult life," he says.
He formed UTA's first black student group, launching a successful movement to ban the campus' antebellum theme, which included the flying of a Confederate flag. But after a few years, Minkah dropped out to become a full-time activist, forming the Dallas chapter of the National Black Panther Party in October 1973.
In 1974, Minkah was looking for a lawyer to bring suit against the Dallas Civil Service Board, which was refusing to comply with its charter by accepting citizen complaints of police misconduct. Minkah found a willing legal advocate in Mike Daniel, a young civil rights attorney then working for Dallas Legal Services.
In turn, Daniel found in Minkah someone who made his job very easy.
"He was a very thorough and capable reader of the law, with a good analytical mind," recalls Daniel, who has been impressed over the years by Minkah's continued devotion to civil rights. "It comes from someplace deep inside him. He is a remarkably unselfish person who really believes in what he is doing."
Daniel and Minkah eventually won the lawsuit, but the victory was bittersweet. That same year, there was a charter election, and the city's voters decided to strip the Civil Service Board of its responsibility for accepting citizen complaints. The move would ultimately lead to the controversial fight for a Citizens Police Review board, a fight that Minkah helped wage.
For the next few years, Minkah and the Panthers organized tenant strikes to force landlords to improve housing conditions, and organized boycotts of businesses that mistreated minorities. To support himself, he trained as a paralegal and worked for Dallas Legal Services. By the late 1970s, the Panthers were floundering. Minkah withdrew the Dallas chapter from the national organization. While he remained involved in grassroots organizing, Minkah decided it was time to become an entrepreneur like his father before him, who had always admonished him to "never work for anyone else."
Minkah went back to school to update his auto mechanic skills and worked for a few body shops until he had enough money to go out on his own. He opened Bell Car Repair, at Fordham and Bonnieview in Southeast Dallas. Within three years, he employed eight mechanics and was earning enough to buy a house for himself, his second wife, and the five children they had between them. For the next 10 years, he operated his business, raised his family, and channeled his activism into ridding the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District of racism. The district was governed by an Anglo board that Minkah saw as particularly hostile to its overwhelmingly minority student population.
By the late 1980s, Minkah's life was in a state of flux. He was forced to move his car-repair shop to a new location. His landlord had let the building fall into disrepair, and it was in danger of being condemned. Car technology had changed, and Minkah had a difficult time finding qualified mechanics. And his second marriage was ending. He decided to leave his business and his marriage and return full time to what he loved best--grassroots organizing. This time, he wanted to focus on spurring economic development, which he had decided was the last best hope for fortifying the African-American inner-city community.
It was about this time that he formally changed his named from Fred Bell to Fahim (Arabic for Intelligent) Minkah (an African word for Justice).
Modeled on a Chicago-based organization, the United Front of Dallas was Fahim Minkah's vision of a Community Chest for black neighborhoods. The idea was to cultivate businesses that would help spur the development of South Dallas. At the same time, United Front would generate income for itself to create new programs, like an African-American scouting project Minkah had developed.
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