Yesterday I attended the funeral of Vernon Nathaniel Dobson, longtime pastor of Union Baptist Church, associate and fellow traveler of Martin Luther King jr., and a member of Baltimore's Goon Squad.
(yes. Goon Squad. more on that later.)
I am in Baltimore because of Reverend Dobson. His daughter, Kim Sydnor, brought me to Morgan to study health disparities in 2004[foot]I've never talked about how I got to Baltimore. I was in my third year at Washington University in St. Louis and I knew I needed a postdoc–a fellowship for academics–or I wouldn't get tenure. I had my eyes set on a health postdoc that would take me to Michigan for two years. I thought it was absolutely perfect for me because it'd get me back home for a bit. When it came time to apply I applied for that health postdoc, I applied for a one year poverty postdoc (also at Michigan), and then I applied for a health disparities postdoc. I got two interviews for that health postdoc I had my eye on–one interview at Michigan, and another at Berkeley. The Michigan interview didn't go well…in fact it went pretty badly. The Berkeley interview went poorly also. I didn't get the poverty postdoc. And because it was deep into March I figured I didn't get the health disparities postdoc either. One Sunday though, I received a phone call from Kim Sydnor. I didn't mention that the health disparities postdoc require that I list two choices. The first choice was Michigan, again because I wanted to go home. The second choice was between Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco. I don't like Atlanta or Boston. I thought San Francisco was too expensive and too far. So I chose Baltimore. Kim didn't just want to interview me, she WANTED me. That brought me to Baltimore. The reason I ended up STAYING in Baltimore was because a job opened up at Johns Hopkins that I applied for. The only reason I applied for it was because I met a Hopkins political scientist when I was at Berkeley. It turns out THAT political scientist actually WROTE the ad in the first place, with someone else in mind. I ended up pretty much stealing the job.[/foot]
I knew that Kim Sydnor had politics–she wouldn't have brought me to Baltimore otherwise. I knew she had deep Baltimore roots. And I think she told me about her father–I knew he was King's contemporary. But over the years, particularly through my work with Marc Steiner, I'd come to realize how seminal a figure he was in Baltimore's history. Reverend Dobson helped found the Juvenile Court System. Union Baptist Church was the home of the Poor People's Campaign. Reverend Dobson helped start the Maryland Food Bank and the Nehemiah Housing Project. Reverend Dobson formed one of the first Head Start programs in Maryland.
And it was Reverend Dobson who helped found Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD).
Now he didn't do it alone. At the leadership level "the Goon Squad"[foot]From what I understand whites called them 'The Coon Squad' and in the best black tradition they renamed it 'The Goon Squad.'[/foot] loomed large. Comprised of Dobson, Homer Favor, Gus Adair, Joe Howard, Parren Mitchell, Harold Dobson (his brother), Wendell Phillips, Pat Scott, Lalit Gadhia, and Madeline Murphy (according to the obituary the one unofficial female member), the Goon Squad was a group of elite Race Men (and one Race Woman) who were influential in developing Baltimore's civil rights agenda. And of course there were other organizations doing work in the city–I know Baltimore had an active SNCC chapter for example. Through their work they made it possible for blacks interested in public office to run, and win. They arguably made it possible for blacks to serve in the police department. They made it possible for blacks to get city and state contracts.
I know that Reverend Dobson expressed dismay that we were adrift in important ways.
Attending the funeral I think he's right. The services started probably an hour or so after they were supposed to, largely because the line of those wishing to pay their respects extended so long. They kept coming.
But with that said, the service revealed a threefold gap to me.
The first is the gap between the “apolitical political elite” and the rest of us. There were a few pastors that I would've expected to be there that were absent. A few politicians (though Kurt Schmoke and Kweisi Mfume were there as was Jill Carter and Frank Conaway, neither the Mayor, her predecessor were nor many of Baltimore's City Council) as well but many more were absent. Reverend Alfred Vaughn delivered the (powerful) eulogy and talked about the difference between his generation of black pastors and the current generation. Whereas his generation was politically involved and spiritually committed powerfully using the story of Christ to organize black men and women for the cause of social justice…this generation is more invested in the prosperity gospel.
We can easily take this argument and apply it outward to black politicians, businessmen, school teachers, and the like.
I don't buy it. The largest black Baptist organization in the country fought against the Civil Rights Movement tooth and nail. For every black church with a social justice mission there were several churches against that mission. They offered social services, yes, but social justice? No. The first black church was a radical institution–radical in that its worshippers believed black people had as much of a right to God as any people did, radical in that its worshippers believed black people had a God given right to citizenship. But "the black church" is no more "naturally" radical than the Constitution itself is. The current generation of prosperity gospel
pimps pastors has as much of a right to declare itself the "natural" home of "the black church" than the pastors with my (correct) politics do.
Last week I wrote a piece about using black churches as a hub of foreclosure activism. I did so not believing in "the black church" as much as I did believing in black people's capacity for activism. That's an important difference. With that said though there are black people who believe strongly in social justice and black people who'd rather simply benefit from the past.
The second gap is an age gap–I know a few members of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle who wanted to be there but couldn't make it, but I assume that most of the people I've worked with don't know Reverend Dobson and his legacy and don't know the longer legacy of struggle in Baltimore. There were very very few people in that large audience under forty. I do not believe this to be the fault of the younger generation of activists, although it may be their responsibility to somehow fix. But I do believe that many of the people who fought long and hard for Baltimore to be open for black folk fought long and hard against a very specific form of race and class subjugation. A form that doesn't really exist anymore.
We don't live in an era of Jim Crow, new or otherwise.
Rather we live in an era of explicit hyper-segregation, an age in which it is possible for a black man to drive without a license, without a photo id of ANY kind, in a car he didn't own (couldn't even say the owner's name with ANY accuracy), with one headlight, and not get a ticket…provided he's a tenure-track professor at a top-tier university.[foot]Yes that would be me. No the car wasn't stolen. No I didn't get a ticket. Think that would've happened in 1970?[/foot] In this age middle income black people still bear the costs of racism–when the economy tanks they're the hardest hit, they can't get that much value from their homes, they are a bit sicker than their white counterparts, and it's much harder to maintain their class status over more than a generation or two because they have no wealth to speak of. But our lower income breathren are much more likely to bear the brunt of it (from black hands no less).
A few weeks ago activists won an important victory when Governor O'Malley pulled back the funding for a proposed jail for "youth charged as adults". Given attitudes about black youth, I wouldn't be surprised if at least some of Dobson's generation didn't support that youth jail because of fear.
Which brings me to the third gap. This gap is a racial gap. In a standing room only service with hundreds of people I could probably count the number of whites on one hand. Senator Ben Cardin was there long enough to pay his respects. Former Senator Paul Sarbanes was there. I sat next to a white woman who received her degree with Kim. Marc Steiner was there. Jake Berzoff-Cohen (a young BUILD organizer) was as well.
And that's about it. Baltimore has a large enough population of whites who benefitted from Reverend Dobson's work AND who support the general cause of social justice that more whites should've been there.
I've worked with Occupy Baltimore folk and many associated with the Red Emma Collective for the past couple of years…but while some of them are familiar with the legacy of black radicalism in Baltimore (AK Press published Marshall Law) and more than a few of them were deeply involved in the struggle to stop the youth prison, they have to do more work to acknowledge the seminal role black people play and do more work with black populations in transforming Baltimore. This likely means they have to make a hard choice. They can work with people of various backgrounds WITH their politics, or they can choose to engage in the lives of regular black men, women, and children, who definitely do NOT have their politics. Who DO believe in a Christian God. Who DO believe that the market isn't a bad thing. Who DO believe that Obama is the next best thing to King. This is an extension of the apolitical elite I talked about above…but the difference is that black activists routinely interact with these folk daily. They are our husbands and wives, our sons and daughters, our cousins and play-cousins, our classmates, our fraternity/sorority brothers/sisters, etc.
Reverend Dobson was a literal and a figurative giant. Our lives have been made better by his presence. I would not consider myself an adopted son of Baltimore had it not been for the spirit he transmitted through his children.
We would do him and ourselves a great service if we were to overcome these gaps, perhaps in the creation of a modern day Goon Squad, in order to make Baltimore a place where social justice lives.