By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
There's nothing unusual about the small brick house on Legend Drive. Nothing striking or noteworthy, except its owner, M.T. A'Vant, the Garland man once widely regarded by the press as a prominent black militant. His place looks just like the next house; the trimmed lawn blending into a suburban scene of order, one which even the "Beware of Dog" sign posted on the front door doesn't disturb. M.T. A'Vant, as Melvin Thomas calls himself, has always tried not to be normal. He'll tell you that he has succeeded.
It's been nearly a decade since this 47-year-old caused a stir by calling for the creation of a militia of urban guerrillas who would devastate Dallas unless the city spent $450 million on minority neighborhoods by 1996. But in his unpredictable way, A'Vant says he wasn't just any militant. "I wasn't about killing white folks," he contends. "I was about cutting off the power supply...of corporations...computers, generators, shit like that."
Whatever kind of radical he may have been, he got people's attention.
"Blood in the streets," shouted A'Vant back in 1991. "Body count. We're going to completely shut down Dallas."
So heated were A'Vant's words that Texas Monthly wrote at the time, "A'Vant's threats tap into the deepest fears of the white community: that the race problem could one day explode into a true conflagration, our version of Watts..." Just to get his point across, A'Vant staged a photo to accompany the article -- him sitting stone-faced next to his grandmother, Jewell Folley. Both had a shotgun in hand.
So what happened to the war and A'Vant's threats? These days, it seems as if A'Vant is more interested in refashioning himself into a hard-line conservative, making himself a local version of black Republican leader J.C. Watts rather than instigating a Watts-style riot. This so-called militant has changed his tune and now calls himself, of all things, a black social conservative. As for that $450 million which A'Vant once would have fought for, the city can keep it. "It would be a waste of money," he now says.
"The niggers would have spent it on cars and Cadillacs and rings," the large, bearded A'Vant says coolly as he sits in a recliner in his living room.
Not that his demands for the money ever made it off the ground, anyway. Perhaps they would have if he hadn't been so tough on the hundreds who had expressed an interest in his militia. They didn't have a problem with having to own a pit bull, as was required to join, or having to buy a registered gun. But that bit about members having to cut off the first joint of their own little fingers gave them pause. A'Vant had wanted to weed out, as he put it, the "Uncle Toms and house Negroes, the snitches." Everyone scrambled.
No matter. These days, this retired construction equipment inspector, U.S. Air Force veteran, and former radio talk show host -- albeit for only a few months back in 1995 -- says that for nearly a decade he has stopped looking to black leaders, the "pimps," as he calls them, for solutions. A'Vant, also known for picketing the grounds of South Garland High School in 1991 because its mural included a flag resembling the Confederate battle symbol, now has this to say: "I don't really have a problem with any race except my own."
Without his mic, he still finds time to hit the AM airwaves, this time as a caller to talk radio. There aren't as many shows as there used to be, but that doesn't stop A'Vant. When he feels the issue is important enough, he'll stay on hold, once doing so for more than three hours. "Pit bull mentality" is what he calls his tenacity. The headphone set that he often wears around the house helps too.
Gone are his days of calling radio stations to voice his support for Al Lipscomb, as he did in the late 1980s, when the latter ran for Dallas City Council. "A convicted felon" is what he now calls the elder man. And A'Vant is through picketing, as he did in 1991 on behalf of whatever cause may be on Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price's agenda. The new M.T. A'Vant says that he has spent the past few years waking up to the controversial notion that black leaders have lined their pockets at the expense of their constituents.
"We have leaders who are determined that we don't get along with Hispanics, that we don't get along with Asians, and we don't get along with white folks," A'Vant says. "If we start getting along with you all and start building a community, they [the leaders] won't have a job.
"How they going to get elected? How they gonna have speaking engagements? Functions?"
When it comes to eliciting strong emotions -- whether by calling radio stations and saying Al Lipscomb belongs in jail or by claiming that blacks too often blame whites for their problems -- A'Vant usually succeeds.
"Ninety percent of black men are a menace to society," he says evenly. Where does A'Vant place himself? With the remaining 10 percent, of course.