Belle Glade's plight is similar to America in 1933, the worst point of the Great Depression. A staggering 33 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level, which is a yearly income of about $22,000 for a family of four. By contrast, 18 percent of people in West Palm Beach live below the poverty level. In August 2009, Palm Beach County planners produced a report declaring an economic crisis in Belle Glade and neighboring towns South Bay and Pahokee. With an estimated unemployment rate of 40 percent, the report claims that the Glades region has "no visible means of support."
The planners pointed to a few bright spots on the horizon: A planned "inland port" distribution center, where freight from the coastal shipping industry would be sorted and routed on land; a new Glades Utility Authority; a new public hospital; and a canal dredging project to support the marine industry. But three years later, even these few economic advances have floundered. The inland port plan is on hold, the utility is on the brink of bankruptcy, the hospital loses $10 million a year, and the canal has not been dredged. In some ways, things have gotten worse. The state-run Glades Correctional Institution closed last year, shedding 300 vital jobs. Packinghouses have disappeared too.
In other words, the community is still in crisis, says Karis Engle, executive director of the nonprofit Glades Initiative. Her organization focuses on helping people get Medicaid, food stamps, rent assistance, and other health and human services. But she admits any real improvement is tied to jobs.
"Jobs are part of having a healthy community," she says. "We've got a long way to go."
Then there's the violence. While the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office says overall crime in Belle Glade has decreased since 2009, the number of homicides has tripled.
In 2009, there were three murders; the next year, there were four. In 2011, the total ballooned to nine. By comparison, the City of West Palm Beach, with a population about six times larger than Belle Glade's, had 19 murders in 2010. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Belle Glade's crime rate per 100,000 people was 9,389 in 2010, compared to 5,700 for West Palm.
In a country town of five-and-half square miles and just 17,700 people, every death leaves a mark. When someone gets shot, people are loath to tell the cops what they know. The distrust of law enforcement goes back decades. Right or wrong, there's a widespread perception that the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office doesn't do enough to keep people safe — especially if the people dying are black.
"To me, it feel like they don't give a damn," Leggett says.
The Alabama Georgia Grocery Store has been on this stretch of road since the 1940s, before it was called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Some old-timers remember the store as a wooden shack. Now it's gray and blue paint over concrete, with old-fashioned block lettering on one side advertising "money orders, lottery, FPL payment." Inside, its shelves are stocked with country staples: white bread, cereal, boiled peanuts, ribbons of ground red meat in the display case.
Owner Jimmy McMillan, the 49-year-old great-grandson of the store's founder, worked hard to make sure things ran smoothly. As a white businessman in a black neighborhood, he hired black employees and kept them on for decades. He got to know customers' parents and grandparents, helped them out when times were tough. A champion bass fisherman, he would sometimes give customers his catch of the day. He was in the store the morning of January 2, when Graham tried to rob the clerk, Barbara Treadway, who happened to be McMillan's mother-in-law.
McMillan reached for something behind the counter. Graham spotted him and trained his gun on him. He tossed over a plastic bag and ordered McMillan to fill it with cash.
McMillan was not a man to back down from a fight. Sure, he let loyal customers buy groceries on credit and sometimes gave them food. He handed out turkeys at Thanksgiving and every Christmas tossed cases of beer to the men who hung out behind the store. But he was not timid — not even when threatened with a deadly weapon.
He emptied the cash register as told. Then, according to police, McMillan reached for Graham's gun. The teenager jumped back. He squeezed the trigger.
The bullet struck McMillan in the right shoulder. He collapsed to the ground. At 6:35 a.m., the sheriff's substation in Belle Glade called 911 to report the shooting. An emergency helicopter whisked McMillan to Delray Medical Center, where he died from his injuries.