Black History Month: Remembering Arizona icon Mel Hannah

Local civil rights leader and community activist paved the way for so many people of color to be our leaders of today & tomorrow
From elected office, to activist and mentor, Mel Hannah helped pave the way for so many people of color to become our leaders of today and tomorrow.
Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: Feb. 22, 2023 at 5:58 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Governor Katie Hobbs started her State of the State last month by recognizing the passing of a local civil rights leader and community icon. “I want to take a moment of personal privilege to honor a man who lived his life in service to this state,” Gov. Hobbs said during the address on Jan. 9. She was talking about Mel Hannah, who recently died at the age of 84.

He dedicated his life to public service. From elected office, to activist and mentor, he helped pave the way for so many people of color to become our leaders of today and tomorrow. Arizona’s Family caught up with family, friends, and mentees who hope to carry on the spirit of his legacy.

Leah Landrum Taylor can’t help smiling talking about her dear friend and confidant. “Even in situations that everyone could be completely unearthed, shaken, unnerved about, he had a way of saying, ‘Let’s really think this through, and let’s look at all sides,’” said Landrum Taylor. Reflecting on her 16 years in the state legislature, her mentor was by her side for all her firsts. She was the first African American woman to run the Senate minority caucus and in her last year in the legislature in 2015, she was the only African American state lawmaker.

“Even now, I think there’s still just one African American in the legislature,” said Landrum Taylor.

She says Hannah taught her to always keep pushing and to never stop engaging people you disagree with. “You might be the only one sitting there, but you’re not the only voice that can be heard,” she said. He helped her understand progress is possible when you can really get to the root of others’ concerns and agendas, reminding her that “You are building true bridges, alliances, with people that might think way different than you.”

She says the people Hannah touched and his sphere of influence is immeasurable. Born in Winslow, Ariz., Hannah stayed true to his roots, always fighting for rural representation. He was the first African American on the Flagstaff City Council & Coconino County Board of Supervisors. He moved to Phoenix as director of community outreach with the Greater Phoenix Urban League, helping inmates transition to meaningful jobs and was one of the first to lead the Arizona Commission on African American Affairs.

Joe Delgado worked with Hannah, a force of nature in wisdom and willpower. “He fought for civil rights, voting rights, human rights, diversity and inclusion. He was at every meeting. He was the chairman of most meetings, and I called him the champion’s champion, because he was always cheering some organization,” Delgado said. The two men spent countless hours and days working to expand voter registration statewide and encourage people to be engaged. “Walking the streets, registering voters, we travelled the state and he introduced me to everybody,” Delgado said.

Homer Townsend, one of Hannah’s oldest and dearest friends, remembers him being a voice of peace at the peak of the civil rights movement. “In 1966, when the burning and everything was going on, I watched Mel take a gym full of people and he said, ‘Well, have you thought about it this way?’” Townsend recalled. And he gets emotional talking about what a calm, measured collaborator he was. He was Hannah’s campaign manager when he first ran for city council. “Mel was phenomenal,” Townsend said.

Cousin Jerry Easily says Hannah helped support him in his ministry and was an inspiration for patient leadership. “He could bring everybody together,” Easily said.

Niece Anna Battle says she is humbled by his legacy. “Uncle Mel had a pure heart. He could reach out and work with different people, different eras of life and periods of time and find a way to weave through, in the midst of mess ... love, laughter, joking, encouragement, and growth,” Battle said.

A peace broker and a jokester. “Everybody had a nickname,” Battle said, remembering that Hannah called Jerry “Foots” because he was a fast runner in school. “I was ‘Ruthie Gal,’ and my mother was ‘Stinky Dinkie.’”

Hannah was known for his signature silver hair, tan jacket, and old school flip phone with an infinite rolodex of key players from here to Washington, D.C. “It was the busiest flip phone in all of Arizona!” Landrum Taylor said. His charming, endearing spirit was contagiously inspiring. “He truly believed in giving his time, his life to helping others and helping make the state and our country a better place,” Landrum Taylor said.

In that spirit, and in his honor, those whose lives were touched by Mel Hannah are now taking a collective vow to continue his legacy. “And if we could carry on with that ... wow, what a place, what a place we would have,” Landrum Taylor said.