Lesly H. “Les” Kimber’s baritone voice was slow and rich, one that commanded attention and could silence a room.
The former Fresno City Council member, who co-founded The California Advocate Newspaper and was a strong activist for racial equality, died Saturday at age 80.
But former colleagues and friends say Mr. Kimber’s voice, both the physical and the philosophical, will remain as his legacy.
“West Fresno never had its own voice until Les Kimber came on the council,” said Karen Humphrey, who also served as his fellow council member and later as mayor. “He was the conscience of the city.”
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Mr. Kimber, a native of Booneville, N.C., grew up on a tobacco farm with his sharecropper family. After high school he attended Morehouse College, a historically black institution in Atlanta, Ga., with alumni including Martin Luther King Jr., before graduating from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., with degrees in accounting and business administration.
While in D.C., Mr. Kimber met his wife, Pauline, a Fresno native. The couple moved to her hometown in 1966, where Mr. Kimber served as the first African-American criminal investigator for the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office. He co-founded The Advocate in 1967 and dedicated himself to the newspaper fulltime as its publisher, addressing issues over the years such as community-police relations, quality education and minority representation.
At times, Mr. Kimber’s activism put him at odds with the city. In 1970, he was charged with interfering with police in the arrest of burglary suspects. A Fresno Municipal Court jury later acquitted him of the charges, but he filed a $600,000 lawsuit for false imprisonment. He settled out of court for $4,000, calling it significant because it forced the city to be held accountable for the actions of police officers.
Mr. Kimber sought election several times to the Fresno City Council and Fresno County Board of Supervisors before winning election to the council in 1983. He was re-elected in 1987. According to a 1971 article in The Bee, Mr. Kimber was the first African-American to seek election to the City Council.
The Bee endorsed Mr. Kimber during his first run for City Council, calling him an intense, energetic, intelligent and tough-minded man who would bring a fresh and independent voice to City Hall.
“Sometimes Kimber comes on strong, but he knows how to prod public debate and test others’ positions,” said the April 9, 1971 endorsement. “It is a quality the council badly needs.”
In 1983, three years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a national holiday, Mr. Kimber spearheaded an effort to officially recognize the holiday in Fresno. That year, the City Council unanimously approved his request to establish the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Committee to coordinate the annual celebration.
Balloting in Fresno was citywide until 1981, when City Council members started being elected by district. That change gave Mr. Kimber the best chance to became the voice of his community.
After announcing his candidacy, Mr. Kimber said his filing represented a historic first toward the self-determination by residents of District 3. The district’s population at the time was 50% black, 30% Latino and 20% white.
“We are today embarking on a bold new adventure that ultimately will result in a better way of life for senior citizens, poor people and those people who historically have not been adequately represented at City Hall,” he said in a Dec. 23, 1982 Bee article.
Oliver Baines, the current District 3 council member, said Mr. Kimber became his mentor after he was elected in 2010. Mr. Kimber’s biggest lesson, Baines said, was to make sure, first and foremost, that he stands for the people of his district.
“Les never wanted it to just be about a political issue,” he said. “He always challenged me to make sure: Is this right for the people? Is this right for the community?”
While on the City Council, Mr. Kimber initiated many important policies, including a free annual garbage pickup for residents that is still in place. He also was instrumental in acquiring the west Fresno site for the Kearney Palms Shopping Center.
Aside from his political life, Mr. Kimber dedicated himself to civil rights causes, including: Participating in the KFSN TV-30 Minority Advisory Committee, which was instrumental in hiring the first African-American TV reporter in Fresno; working as executive director of King of Kings Housing Development Corp. and Martin Luther King Square Housing Development, low-income housing organizations; founding the nonprofit United Black Men of Fresno; and founding the West Fresno Ministerial Alliance.
Mr. Kimber also was a deacon and active member of Saint Rest Baptist Church. The Rev. D.J. Criner said he was at the hospital when Mr. Kimber died. He had prostate cancer that spread, and had been in and out of the hospital for about three weeks.
“I think he was our drum major for justice. He pushed for change in west Fresno,” Criner said, nodding to The Advocate’s annual Drum Major For Justice award, given to those who carried on King’s legacy.
Sudarshan Kapoor, a Fresno State social work professor, worked closely with Mr. Kimber in planning MLK Day celebrations. Kapoor was one of the founding members of the unity committee that Mr. Kimber started, and is the only founding member still on it today.
“He was the first one who would speak against oppression, discrimination, prejudice,” Kapoor said.
Kapoor recalled one of Mr. Kimber’s most recent initiatives. In 2010, Mr. Kimber started a community group called Citizens for Civility and Accountability in Media, calling for the radio station KMJ to allow for a wider range of opinions on the air. As one of the top stations in Fresno, Mr. Kimber said, programming dominated by conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck damaged the community.
Mr. Kimber’s son, Mark Kimber, said his father was an icon in the black community. Like his father’s friends, Mark Kimber said his father’s lasting legacy is all about voice.
“His commitment,” Mark Kimber said, “was to the African-American community here in Fresno, giving them a voice.”