Preacher hopes to lead young back to NAACP New youth director developing programs to win their support

July 08, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, a 25-year-old Baltimore preacher, was a blur of color -- green suit, white shirt, orange and blue tie -- as he whizzed from meeting to meeting yesterday at the NAACP's 87th annual convention.

Bryant had good reason to be in a hurry. President Kweisi Mfume has entrusted him with what may be the venerable civil rights group's toughest job as it remakes itself: getting black youth to believe in the NAACP.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has about 70,000 youth and college members; Mfume wants to double that number in a year. Named youth and college director May 1, Bryant is charged with making that happen.

Bryant, a self-possessed young man with a shaved head and a penetrating gaze, said in an interview that he wants to focus on three main areas: voter education drives; stop-the-violence campaigns, and a nationwide mentoring program that would match NAACP adult and youth members.

"Young people are fed up with rhetoric; they're looking for results," he said. "I can't sell young people on the NAACP alone. I've got to have programs. If they see nothing there, they'll go right back out the door."

Bryant said he believes that Mfume's newness on the job (the former congressman from Maryland was named to head the organization in February) and his own youth will make young blacks at least give the NAACP a chance.

"Young people will be able to relate to me on sight and say, 'He's got to know what's going on on the street and in the colleges,' " he said.

He said he will try to change what he thinks are common but mistaken attitudes about the NAACP: that the group is dated and out of step, and that it is for the "black bourgeoisie," not the inner-city poor.

The NAACP youth director said much of the coming year would be spent laying the foundations for success.

"We're not going to be an overnight sensation, transforming Murphy Homes into Tuskegee," he said, referring to the Baltimore public-housing high-rise and the college founded by Booker T. Washington. "But something can be done."

Bryant's background

Bryant brings to the job credentials in both the black church and the civil rights arena. His parents are ministers, Bishop John R. Bryant of Dallas, former pastor of Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Cecelia Williams Bryant, an author.

Jamal Bryant began preaching at 19 and is developing a growing national reputation. He has spoken at the last four NAACP conventions. He is a candidate for a master's degree in divinity at Duke University.

He attended Baltimore City College through 11th grade and then moved to Africa when his father became AME bishop in Liberia. He graduated from Morehouse College, a historically black school in Atlanta, where he was president of the NAACP college chapter. After college, he spent seven months working on voter education projects in South Africa.

Bryant was a high school student when he first met Mfume. He later spent a summer as an intern in Mfume's congressional office. He describes his new boss as "not one who accepts mediocrity."

The young preacher regards his NAACP post as part of his ministry. He says he believes that the problems of black youth are, at least in part, spiritual.

'BET video mentality'

He said many young African-Americans are afflicted with a "BET [Black Entertainment Television] video mentality" that glorifies violence, casual sex and materialism.

"If you're driving a BMW or Lexus and still renting an apartment, what happens when the car is repossessed?" he asked. "Or what happens when your legs are no longer sightly under a miniskirt?"

Asked how to change that mentality, Bryant conceded that he had no quick fix.

"If I knew the answer to that, I'd be president of the NAACP and Urban League both," he said.

Pub Date: 7/08/96

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