MAXWELL:  Steps in the right direction

3/17/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The kinetic energy of last year’s Million Man March continues to affect black men everywhere, and it is clearly evident among members of the Coalition of Concerned African-American Men in this city two hours west of Richmond.

Inspired by their participation in the Washington rally called by Louis Farrakhan, the charismatic, controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, coalition members have implemented several self-help programs focusing on the black male. The group’s most ambitious project has been Saturday’s One Thousand Man March, at which Martin Luther King III spoke during a special ceremony.

Although the march mimicked the Million Man March, Lynchburg leaders say that they have no connection with the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism and his courtship of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi and other supporters of international terrorism.

“Our march is intended to empower the African-American male, the family and the community,” said the Rev. James E. Coleman Jr., pastor of Court Street Baptist Church and a march organizer. “Our mission is Christ-centered. It is more spiritual than political. And by the way, our Jewish friends in Lynchburg support us.”

Because I, too, believe that black men must become self-reliant, I was honored to meet with these young, unapologetic, seminary-trained pastors and to listen to them outline their vision for black America in general, their specific plans to improve their communities and the philosophy that guides them.

When asked why the group concentrates on black males, Garnell Stamps, coalition spokesman and lay representative, commented passionately and forthrightly: “Much of the American dilemma _ many of the things that plague our society _ are caused by black men. We can’t deny it. Black women did not initiate bringing drugs into the black community. And even though white robber barons and white profiteers had a lot to do with it, black men were the ones who brought drugs into the black community.

“It’s black men who have enticed black women to prostitute themselves. It’s black men who are going out here breaking and entering. The classrooms that are being disrupted in our schools all over America _ and the classrooms we’re talking about here in Central Virginia _ are being disrupted by young black males. They’re the ones who are walking around with their clothes hanging off and talking that gangsta rap and calling young black women bitches and “hos.’

“When we talk about bringing dignity and responsibility back to our community, we’re talking about black men. We, black men, took dignity and responsibility out of our community. We are responsible for bringing these values back into our community.”

Stamps and other organizers caution, however, that they do not intend to denigrate black men. Nor, they warn, do they intend to free white people of complicity in creating many of the intractable problems that African-Americans, especially young males, face.

Despite white people’s complicity, though, Stamps and other coalition members believe that blaming whites is a zero-sum game that perpetuates the misery of blacks and causes us to remain second-class citizens _ or worse.

As such, after returning from the Million Man March, group members implemented and encouraged others to start programs that produce practical results. One such effort, an agency called Everyday People, was established by a young pastor to help young people fight drug addiction. At another church, addicts meet each day at noon and each Sunday night for professional counseling and fellowship.

But even with initial signs of success with some young people, coalition members remain keenly aware of the daunting burden they face in trying to reverse generations of defeatist thinking and self-destructive behavior, especially the lethal violence decimating the ranks of young black males and the blase attitude of teenagers toward out-of-wedlock childbirth.

“Spiritual things must take place deep inside people before real changes can become a reality in their lives,” said the Rev. Carl Hutcherson Jr., pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Madison Heights. “It has to be a two-handed thing. Along with the physical things that we are doing _ drug and alcohol counseling, job referrals and voter registration _ we must nurture the spiritual side, too.”

Buoyed by a recent Virginia legislative proposal to study the plight of black men in the state, coalition leaders say that Saturday’s march, at which more than 200 new voters were registered, is just the beginning of a revolution in the Lynchburg area and, they hope, elsewhere.

Are they naive? Hardly.

Change has to began somewhere, with small steps, in concrete places, among people with realistic goals of creating better lives for themselves, their families and their communities. I only wish that every black community in America would follow the example of Lynchburg.