Activism: Young Jamal-Harrison Bryant is taking the venerable, 88-year-old civil rights organization to a hip-hop generation that wasn't alive when Dr. King was.


April 08, 1997|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Love Fellowship Tabernacle Church is rocking. Nearly 400 people -- most of them under the age of 30 -- are being whipped into a singing, stomping, praying revival by the church's pastor, Hezekiah Walker, and his Grammy award-winning gospel choir. No one is holding back. They clap hands, hug the people next to them, reassure each other again and again that "Everything is going to be all right."

Outside, the wail of police sirens shatters the stillness of a battered urban neighborhood. But inside the brightly lit church, a celebration of the spirit is under way.

"This is our party!" Pastor Walker exults. "This is how we get down!"

From his chair by the altar, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant moves to the music, caught up in the power of the night. He's the man who organized this gathering. And, for him, it is more than a party. It is a test.

The 25-year-old minister from Baltimore is here on behalf of the country's most venerable civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Over the next three weeks, he'll travel from Florida to California for rallies like this one. His mission: to make the NAACP relevant to young African-Americans.

Can he do it?

Many of the young people at tonight's "Stop the Violence -- Start the Love" rally have been lured here by the immensely popular Pastor Walker. Others have come because they heard this was going to be a tribute to slain rapper Biggie Smalls (aka Notorious B.I.G.), who grew up in Brooklyn. And some are here to hear Bryant, the last speaker of the evening.

His title, NAACP youth director, doesn't carry much weight with these twentysomethings. For most of them, the NAACP is a relic from their parents' and grandparents' time or some dimly remembered passage from a history book.

Roslyn Jarrell, a 19-year-old college student with straight, shoulder-length hair, is typical. She loves Pastor Walker but feels no connection to the NAACP.

"I know they give out scholarships for college," says Jarrell, who was born 10 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., "but I never saw them in my neighborhood. I never saw them in my high school."

The Chavis years

There was a time when the NAACP threatened to make Jarrell and her friends sit up and take notice. That was back when the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad was running the show, holding gang summits and reaching out to the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the fiery head of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan's blatant anti-Semitism made older members of the NAACP uncomfortable. But his message of black empowerment made him a hero on many black college campuses.

But then Chavis Muhammad fell from grace, fired in 1994 for financial improprieties. He later helped Farrakhan organize the Million Man March, basking in the glory of its success while the NAACP struggled to emerge from a mound of debt.

Now, under the direction of president Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP is ready to mount a new campaign for the hearts and minds of the hip-hop generation. And Mfume has turned to Bryant.

"I've known Jamal for the last 10 years or so," says the former congressman, who has always been impressed with Bryant's sincerity, determination and commitment. "When I made the switch to come on board here, it was clear to me he was the best person for the job."

Of the NAACP's more than 400,000 members, at least 70,000 are college-age or younger. Mfume wants Bryant to double that number. Their efforts have already increased the number of college chapters from 150 to 250 in the last year.

Can he do it?

Bryant certainly knows how to work a crowd. Grew up knowing how. For years, his father, Bishop John R. Bryant, was a towering presence at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Baltimore. Jamal gave his first sermon there at the age of 19. The title: "No Pain, No Gain."

Childhood indication

But his mother, the Rev. Cecelia Williams, knew long before then that he was destined to be a leader. She remembers one incident from his childhood vividly.

"He must have been in the 3rd or 4th grade at the time," she says. "I remember he was in his room for a long time with the door closed. Then the next day, I was doing laundry and putting clothes away in his drawer and saw a lot of change. I mean, it was a lot of change. Then his sister announced, 'Jamal is a banker!' "

Jamal had decided his friends needed a banker. So he signed kids up and told them he would hold their money for safekeeping. Along with the change, there was a list detailing the name of each child and the amount of money he or she had "deposited." The only thing he hadn't thought about, his mother says, was charging interest.

"Well, I had to tell Jamal, 'No, you are not a banker.' And I got the kids' money back to them," Mrs. Bryant says.

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