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Community activism group undergoes change in leadership
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Longtime Newtown Florist Club executive director Faye Bush, right, has retired from her everyday role for the environmental justice organization. Gainesville civil rights activist Rose Johnson will be taking over.

Martin Luther King Day events

Gainesville march: Begins at 1 p.m. today, SunTrust Bank, 121 E.E. Butler Parkway.
King Holiday Observance Program: 2 p.m. today, Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School, 695 Fair St., Gainesville. The Rev. Stephen P. Samuel, senior pastor of St. John Baptist Church, will give the keynote address. Contact: Newtown Florist Club, 770-718-1343.
Lanier Islands: Clothing donations good for half-price admission today to SnowWorld.
Governments: Gainesville and Hall County government offices are closed today.

Now, if she wants, Faye Bush doesn’t have to walk across the street to work anymore.

And she said she’s ready for the rest, maybe a little travel, as she turned over longtime leadership of the Newtown Florist Club at 1064 Desota St. in Gainesville to another longtime vocal leader, the Rev. Rose Johnson, at the end of 2014.

“I just want to do whatever I can do to encourage (others) to do things and keep (the club) going,” Bush said. “If you don’t have it at heart like I do, then you lose it.

“I’ll be checking in for awhile, until they get everything going.”

Filling the 80-year-old Bush’s shoes will be a large task, Johnson said.

“I don’t think there’s a woman in my time that I’m aware of who has given more to honor Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s dream and made a lifetime contribution to the fight for civil and human rights as (her).

“The impact she has had on so many lives can be seen and felt all around. She has touched the souls, hearts and minds of so many people.”

Since she was 18, Bush has been working for the civil and environmental rights group, which began as a service organization that gave flowers to families when someone in the traditionally African-American community died.

Ruby Wilkins was the first club leader. Bush, who followed later as executive director, drew inspiration from Wilkins.

“She was a little fighter,” Bush said, recalling one meeting where Wilkins spoke and the ceiling collapsed. “It was just like she shook it. She was a worker, I tell you.”

The club was formed when residents of Newtown were collecting money for funerals and would sometimes come up short. Members later discovered the community had disproportionately high rates of lupus and cancer.

Concerns were that neighboring industries were causing illness, so the organization launched into environmental activism.

The community itself was built on top of what had been discarded rubble and other refuse following Gainesville’s devastating Tornado of ‘36.

She said environmental conditions in Newtown “are better than they used to be, because it was rough over here at times.”

Bush said she believes one of her biggest accomplishments was pushing to get Myrtle Street, a road running through the heart of Southside, named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The club’s efforts paid off in 2000, when the city renamed Myrtle between Downey Boulevard and Queen City Parkway as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The club faced other challenges, as well.

“It’s just so hard now with nonprofits to raise money to keep things going, and that’s one of the things we’ve been having a problem with,” Bush said. “But we’ve been able to keep the doors open and keep going, so something we’re doing is right.”

But also, Bush said, the club has strived to ensure Newtown children stay in school and that disabled residents get help as needed.

Still, Bush said she believes younger people need to step in and help carry the torch for the group.

“We old people can’t carry it on,” she said, with a laugh.

Delinda Luster, office manager for the group, said Bush’s work “has meant a lot to me and I would hope that everybody in the community feels the same way.

“Because of the work (the club did), we are much better off than we were.”

In addition to the activism, Bush had regular day jobs over the years.

“I used to work at the poultry plant and New Holland Mill, and I had a little business of my own at one time,” she said.

Bush said she’s excited about Johnson taking over.

“She knows how to reach people and how to get grants and all that,” she said. “She has a lot of knowledge on things to do and how to do it, and she speaks out on it.”

And like Bush, Johnson has been part of the Newtown Florist Club since an early age.

“What I must do is honor the legacy of the women who invested a lot of time, energy and wisdom into me along the way,” Johnson said.

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