By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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.
As for the 90 percent, he has a simple solution. "Don't give them money. Let them support their selves."
"What did integration accomplish?" shouts A'Vant, a six-times-married father of seven whose trimmed beard makes him look a lot like a musical favorite of his, Barry White. "Not a damn thing."
Not surprisingly, A'Vant has few friends, or as he says it: "I don't have no close friends. I don't let people get that close."
Once again, he's succeeding.
What black friends he does have don't mind bashing him.
"M.T. A'Vant is a fucked-up, dysfunctional demon straight from hell," says 46-year-old Mary Pitts, saying the words slowly, as if she's relishing each one. She says she has told him to his face: "The only thing M.T. has to offer are negative misconceptions." In the 20 years since she met him at a school board meeting, she says that she has become his "mother, sister, lawyer, psychiatrist, you name it." Often, when A'Vant begs her long enough, she'll stop by his home and fix a dinner of green beans and turkey legs for him and his 11-year-old son, whom he's raising alone.
There's a barbershop a few miles from A'Vant's home where similar feelings erupt every few weeks. Owner Craig White, 28, met A'Vant 10 years ago. He hears the talk.
"One customer, a truck driver, will come in and ask, 'Anyone hear from M.T.?' And there it goes," says White, shaking his head. "M.T. doesn't need matches because he's fire all by his self.
"You should have been in here earlier," he says, referring to the talk about A'Vant that erupted hours before.
By late afternoon, though, the few customers in the shop don't know A'Vant by name. Still, all A'Vant needs by way of introduction is his inflammatory quote about "90 percent of black men" to get the conversation rolling.
"That's ignorant to say that," says a 31-year-old man at the shop. "That's not even true. What he's saying is that he hate his self," he adds angrily, declining to give his name. "I'm not important just like he's not important."
He has these parting words: "Tell his mama I said to whup him with a hot chain."
Seventy-five-year-old Dora A'Vant has been told that before. "That's his problem," she says of her son. "He wants attention. That's one of his big problems."
A'Vant has always known how to get a reaction. He proudly recalls the moment when, as a teenager, an Italian neighbor told him that if he ever learned how to use his mouth, it would be worth a million. These days, A'Vant supports himself with the retirement check he gets every month.
"I try hard not to be normal," A'Vant says. "Who wants to be normal?"
His transformation to social conservative began in the early 1990s.
Back then, A'Vant had another battle he was waging. For nearly two years, he had written letters to Garland's elected officials, demanding that they paint over a mural at South Garland High School that included the image of a Confederate flag. When after two years no one listened to him, he took to the street outside the school wearing a sign, "The Good Ole South Is Over!"
"No! No! No!" he often shouted.
Onlookers were less than pleased. "That would drive them fuckers crazy," he says. Some of them, A'Vant alleges, shot at his home.
In the end, after several months of protests outside the school, the board reached an agreement not with him but with the local NAACP chapter to modify the flag, not paint over it. For A'Vant, the NAACP hadn't gone far enough. It's an experience that left A'Vant feeling disillusioned with black leadership.
Concurrent with the South Garland issue, A'Vant had another experience that disillusioned him. In 1991, he joined the hundreds who picketed with John Wiley Price to bring more minorities to Channel 5 News. But soon, A'Vant concluded that Price was "pimping the black community," recruiting them in his effort to bring minorities to the station who would be sympathetic to Price.
Still, he told Price and other protesters about a militia he wanted to organize. A'Vant says that he later met with Price and some 30 others at Lincoln High School to discuss the group. To this day, A'Vant says that Price pledged his support, as long as he could stay anonymous. A'Vant knew then: "I wasn't going to be putting my ass on the line while he hit and run with the opposition." (Commissioner Price did not respond to repeated calls from the Dallas Observer for comment.) He dropped Price and the militia. A conservative A'Vant was born.
"They're poverty pimps," he now says. "Black leaders beg. That's all they do."
He tried to change that leadership, he says, when in 1993 he ran for president of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP. But he generated news not for the issues, but for getting into a brawl with another candidate who had insulted A'Vant's mother.
Undeterred, in 1994 he ran for a Garland school board seat. He called for an end to integration and busing. He lost.
Then in 1995, A'Vant (who says that his father, Jimmy A'Vant, was the first black radio host in Dallas for a religious station, KNOK) had another platform -- his own radio program. "The M.T. Show," according to A'Vant, was masterminded by conservative loudmouth Morton Downey, Jr., who had arranged for A'Vant to get the show on KGBS-AM 1190.
A'Vant wasted no air time and criticized Dallas' many blacks and their leaders. But the show ended after several months because of repeated complaints to the station from Al Lipscomb, Price, and former Dallas City Council member Diane Ragsdale, A'Vant says.
"I have no comment regarding such gentleman. OK?" says Ragsdale, when asked if A'Vant's allegations were true. "I closed him out many years ago."
He had been off the air for about six months, when, according to A'Vant, an anonymous donor in the black community paid more than a thousand dollars a week to get him back on. (A'Vant would not identify the man and says he doesn't know his whereabouts). But after a few weeks, he was off again because of those alleged complaints from black leaders.
A'Vant isn't discouraged, even if he now has to hold a while to get on the air. It's worth the wait; he seems to get a high from stirring people's emotions -- whatever that emotion may be. On a recent evening at his home, he popped a video in his VCR showing his talk before the Garland City Council. "You're all in bed with the school board," he said then, alleging that the council and the school board only worked together when it suited them -- at election time.
The criticism didn't register, though; the members brushed him off with laughter.
Now, watching the tape, A'Vant seems unfazed, unhurt by their mockery. He sits calmly in his chair, the room filled with the sweet smell of a homemade cigarette. After hours of blowing smoke in this reporter's face, his eyes widen and he grins when it looks as if the fumes have affected someone other than himself.
"Contact," he says with a triumphant smile.