Prophets Without Honor

The self-proclaimed ministers of capitalism have gotten a cool reception to their gospel in Dallas. But Chevis King Jr. and Joe Howard won't give up till they've found a better way to spend black people's money.

In this ocean of words, Howard and King swim upstream. They make their journey harder by attacking the sacred, making venomous assertions about the legacy of what they term "the civil rights industry."

"We defy anybody from the civil rights industry to specifically tell black folks what they have achieved in the last 30 years," King says. "The real harm of the civil rights industry is that the majority of decent, law-abiding, God-fearing black folks are under house arrest. That house arrest is having bars on the windows, bars on the doors. They get up every day and unlock themselves from jails. They come home before dark, and lock themselves up in their jails again. Since the Civil Rights bill, things have gotten much, much worse."

King and Howard sit back, allowing the shock of the words to sink in. The two acknowledge that racism exists. But their take on it is that you have to learn how to manage it. Racism is an adversity you learn to forbear while making your way in the free market.

The duo's cocksure statements have their charm, but tend to make them seem not of this world.

"Are these people not in touch with reality?" asks Kenneth M. Hamilton, an associate professor of history and director of ethnic studies at Southern Methodist University. His voice is incredulous.

Hamilton sees Howard and King as part of a post-Nixon blame-the-victim rhetoric that's cropped up among some black people. They misappropriate Booker T. Washington for their purposes, he says. Washington never assessed the blame for poverty to blacks; he exhorted both rich white Northerners and well-to-do blacks to help those under them.

"Their school of thought is opportunistic," he says. "They have taken a conservative concept to the land of absurdity."

King and Howard spend a great deal of their energy attacking affirmative action--what they term "socialism at its worst." Their attacks have a personal edge: Both men owned businesses which they say failed, in part, because of their belief in and use of minority set-aside programs.

The problem is that affirmative action doesn't really help black people, King says.

"Their leaders don't ever tell that they are getting beat in affirmative action by the Koreans or the Japanese," he says. "No, what these leaders do is press for a bigger slice of the pie. But black folk still get less than 2 percent of the affirmative action."

"So what happens, the minority goals are being met and oftentimes exceeded, but black folk still aren't happy," Howard adds. "But they have no real complaint or legal redress other than to agitate, litigate, and demonstrate."

Affirmative action is anathema to competition, the duo say. It fools black people into thinking that only a limited number of jobs are available, creating an atmosphere of tension and crabbing.

These views, more than anything, have fueled Howard's and King's critics. Thurman Jones says the pair have underestimated the level of support among blacks for affirmative-action programs.

"I think that in some instances, Chevis and Joe's views are so much to the extreme that they run counter to the spirit of the community," he says. "I think that black folks are conservative, but they believe in things like affirmative action. Some people think that those two have an honorary membership in the John Birch Society."

On the radio, Howard and King amp up their sermons to an incendiary level. They've got the renegade outsider routine down, having honed it on KSKY for years. One week, while guests on a conservative talk show broadcast in Omaha, Nebraska, King told the audience how traditional black leadership--such as the NAACP--uses black people like property, much the same way slave owners peddled their people as chattel. "They say, 'We've got some good black folks here for you and if you don't use them, we won't shop with you.' It's economic extortion," King said.

They've found their best radio audiences outside the area, where radio stations, both liberal and conservative, have asked them to spout their views. They've made 70 appearances over the last five years.

Yet, despite their best efforts, Howard and King remain prophets without honor in their hometown.

"I can't comment on them--I'm just not a regular reader," says Jim Washington, publisher of The Dallas Weekly, the largest-circulation black newspaper in town. While he allows that their point of view has its place, he doesn't buy the pair's renegade shtick. "The African-American community is not a monolith," he says. "Somewhere in the middle lie the vast majority of us."

Howard and King took different roads to their free-market conversion experiences. But both complain they were betrayed by the very government programs designed to help them.

King is a self-made man. He got his GED while in the military after dropping out of high school. He took numerous college courses, but never earned a degree. Yet he speaks with a use of language that shows he has read a great deal.

His wife of 35 years, Margie, says her husband has always been a planner. She tells the story of how her then-future husband told her, at age 16, what sort of car he'd drive by the time he was 30. Then in 1967, a few months after his 30th birthday, he bought it--a pale yellow Cadillac Coupe De Ville.

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