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.

"He was always pushing, saying that he could do things, always setting goals," Mrs. King says. "It has always been his strength."

That sense of purpose was important, she says, during the lean times. She looked at him and fed from his strength. "It's like breathing--that part of him that is so committed," she says. "Sometimes it scares me."

After working for such companies as Honeywell, General Electric, and Control Data, King decided to be his own boss. He and a partner took over a small manufacturing plant in northeast Oklahoma City. The plant at first tested computer equipment, and manufactured aircraft parts. He changed the product line to include telephones, and fuel cells for planes. King registered the company, Adroit Manufacturing, as a minority contractor and received government work through set-aside programs. For nearly 10 years the company did well, at its high point pulling in $900,000 in gross profits, King says.

But in 1984, the Federal Aviation Administration, the company's largest contractor, accused King of underpaying his employees. King fought the charge, but the FAA took away his contract, awarding it to a white female business owner in Dallas, he says. King sued the FAA, demanding $450,000 in damages. As the suit dragged through the courts for years, King saw his reputation as a manufacturer plummet. He lost more contracts. He cut back on staff. Eventually he sold off his equipment and rented out the building. Some four years later, he received a settlement: $60,506.98.

"It was all very devastating," he says. "When I used to hear stories about the government and what it had done to other black businesses, I thought, 'How could this be?' I thought something else was underlying it until it happened to me."

King's experiences with Adroit led him to the belief that government contracts are a trap. "I've never had any desire to do government work again," he says. "And I have no love or affinity for affirmative action because it is the road to devastation."

Howard's experiences with set-aside programs were equally dispiriting. Howard grew up in Abilene and spent four years in the Navy. He and his wife, Sherry, moved to Dallas for Howard's job with AT&T. While he worked, Howard attended school at UTA. After 10 years of part-time study, he graduated with a degree in marketing.

Soon afterward, Howard stumbled into a job as a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch in downtown Dallas. Through much of the 1980s, he moved from brokerage to brokerage, helping buy and sell high-flying leveraged stock accounts.

Sherry, his wife of 32 years, says her husband has always been stubborn and never liked taking orders from people. He did what he had to, always with an eye toward moving on. He always discussed those moves with her. And she always supported them. "It takes a little bit of adjustment," she says, "but in the long run, things always work out."

In 1985, Howard and two other black brokers started their own company, Howard, Smith, Williams. They capitalized on a move by municipal pension-fund managers to set aside some of their business for minority firms. At first, work was steady. "It was very stable," Howard says. "We didn't have to guess if the money was going to come in."

But after some legal challenges, most municipalities discontinued the program. The company's customer base was drying up--a problem compounded by the stock market crash a year later, in 1987.

"With the stock market crashing, there is a certain amount of tell-tale signs you can rely on," Howard says. "But the affirmative action--what killed us was that we couldn't control our business. You had no control over the amount of business they gave you.

"No matter how well you do or how good the price or the product is, in affirmative action you can't control your consumer. And that's not the free market. Damn, it really sucks."

These days, King and Howard invest their energy in the Beacon Economic plan, their simple method to bring the black community into capitalist nirvana.

But is it viable? In some ways, says Kathy Hayes, an SMU economics professor. "I think that if it were a PR piece, it raises all the right issues," she says. "But it is still unclear to me what the benefits are for buying in the black communities."

Hamilton, the SMU historian, is more blunt. "It is a self-serving, bankrupt philosophy," he says. "What is buying black going to do for black people without a black bank?"

Hamilton argues that the Beacon Plan is merely exploiting the consumer, making them buy things that are usually priced higher and of lower quality just to get a feel-good ethnic rush. The plan is short-sighted, he adds, because no group can finance its own economic development. The government, he adds, should do the right thing by compensating black people "for what happened to them."

Howard and King scoff in return--skewering the "gimme" attitudes they say have put black people in the predicament they're in.

King says his plan is deliberately simple because the workings of capitalism are simple. "Creating a dynamic of triumph in this community doesn't mean you have to be an accountant," he says. "Economics is just buying and selling."

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