A post-civil rights era visionary for inner cities

November 15, 1998|By George F. Will

QUEENS, N.Y. -- For 11 years, until November 1997, the Rev. Floyd Flake was also Democratic congressman Flake. He had said when he went to Washington that he would serve at most six terms, and midway through his sixth -- he couldn't wait; sound fellow -- he resigned. One of America's ablest black leaders has responsibilities more manifold, pressing and satisfying than politics offers.

The school he founded in 1982 -- the pupils, grades kindergarten through 8, immaculate in their uniforms -- sparkles. Of course, says Mr. Flake, matter-of-factly, I'm a janitor's son. There is a long waiting list to be among the upward of 480 pupils. Of those who attend for nine years, virtually all go on to college.

Multipurpose church

The $23 million Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church complex he built includes a credit union, a clinic and Head Start classrooms for the (so far) 11,000 members -- more than can be packed into the pews (capacity 2,500) at the 6: 30, 8: 30 and 11: 15 a.m. Sunday services. The bus service he runs takes church members into Manhattan for outings, to outlet shopping malls in Reading, Pa., to New England to see the foliage and on jaunts back to the Southern states from which they or their parents or grandparents came during the great northward migration.

The cost to the church of buying boarded-up stores in the neighborhood is rising, a tribute to the church's success in leasing rehabilitated buildings. There is a waiting list for the church's 300-unit apartment for the elderly. The 50 two-family bungalows (an owner rents the second unit to help finance the mortgage) were snapped up before the church finished building them.

All told, the church is a $50 million enterprise whose 825 employees are scattered over 26 blocks of southeast Queens. Mr. Flake's undertakings, blending soulcraft and community development, are, after Kennedy Airport, the second largest employer in what used to be his congressional district.

A drive with Mr. Flake through the neighboring streets, lined with old trees, is a drive down memory lane: Lena Horne lived there; Jackie Robinson owned that house after Babe Ruth did; those houses over there are built where Count Basie's swimming pool was. Time was, many blacks who could afford to live anywhere, but could not live just anywhere, lived here. Mr. Flake works with government and lending institutions to keep it a community of homeowners, not renters.

On Election Day, while Mr. Flake eats lunch at a large, teeming restaurant, where almost everyone seems to know and like him, a woman, hissing mad, leans over his table to excoriate him as a Judas who has betrayed blacks by supporting Republican Sen. Al D'Amato against Rep. Charles Schumer. Mr. Flake receives this reprimand equably and, when the woman departs, he muses about how helpful Mr. D'Amato has been as chairman of the Banking Committee, and worries that the position will fall to Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, if Mr. D'Amato loses. (He lost.) Mr. Flake knows how to scan the political chessboard.

But what makes him emblematic of black leaders attuned to the post-civil rights era is that he considers politics of secondary -- no, tertiary -- significance. It is less important than churches' redemptive work and the economic empowerment that can flow from the business community.

Community development

When Mr. Flake was in Congress he supported (he was thinking of those homeowners "who made the sacrifice to buy homes 25 years ago) a capital gains tax cut. He was the first of four members of the Congressional Black Caucus to support, as overwhelming majorities of inner-city blacks do, voucher systems to enable parents to choose public or private schools. Many members of the black caucus should meditate about that during dull moments of parent-teacher meetings at the private schools to which they send their children.

Some Republicans dream of running him to succeed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, stressing school choice. Even if he were tempted, Mrs. Flake, who runs the school, is emphatically not.

One of 13 children of parents who never made it to junior high school, Mr. Flake attended college and divinity school before becoming dean of students at Boston University. Along the way he acquired powerful rhetorical gifts, but not the demoralizing fluency of many black leaders, the language of extenuation. Victimspeak is not spoken here.

Mr. Flake says that black leaders for whom "the highlight of their lives was the civil rights movement" have "not done the hard analysis that is indicated" by the achievements of the civil-rights era. If you seek a stunning monument to fresh thinking, come here and look around. You will see one important element of urban America's salvation -- community development radiating from faith-based institutions.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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