The Man Who Would Be King

Freddy Haynes seemed a shoo-in to lead the NAACP. Then Obama's ex-pastor came to town.

On a Sunday morning not long ago, in a part of the city mostly ignored and forgotten, they gathered to honor him. The cars started streaming down Wheatland Road at daybreak, forming a long line of lights glowing in the early morning mist. The news trucks, rarely seen in this part of town outside of breaking crime stories, parked across the street at Carter High School, ready to go live.

By 8 a.m. the crowd was filing through the church's granite-floored lobby, past the picture of a black Jesus and into the massive sanctuary. The man they had come to honor, Frederick Haynes III, sat on the stage while the 250-member choir swayed and sang behind him. The chapel could comfortably seat 6,000, and today it would do just that.

As the choir faded out, Reverend Haynes rose from his seat. He was a tall man of 48, athletically built, with a carefully trimmed goatee and a receding hairline. He wore a dark pinstripe suit, a thick purple tie and cufflinks visible 10 feet away. On this morning, he could barely keep the smile from his face.

Courtesy of Friendship West Baptist Church
Freddy Haynes is part Martin Luther King Jr. and part Malcolm X: He can fill the streets with protesters at a moment's notice.
Courtesy of Friendship West Baptist Church
Freddy Haynes is part Martin Luther King Jr. and part Malcolm X: He can fill the streets with protesters at a moment's notice.

For 25 years he had built this congregation, Friendship West Baptist Church, and this month was its anniversary. When Haynes came to the church, it was housed in a small A-frame structure and had a few hundred members. Over time, it had grown into one of the largest and most influential black churches in Dallas, if not the nation. His message of black empowerment had attracted thousands, including three of the most powerful black men in the city—District Attorney Craig Watkins, state Senator Royce West and City Councilman Dwaine Caraway—who were seated with their families on the front two rows.

For the past month, some of the biggest names in the black church had come to pay homage as part of the anniversary celebration. Two weeks ago, Al Sharpton delivered the sermon. Today, that honor went to the man who had brought out the camera crews, Jeremiah Wright, pastor to Barack Obama. At the time, Wright was perhaps the most controversial religious figure in America.

For weeks, snippets of Wright's sermons had been playing in an endless loop on cable news shows as conservative talk show hosts attempted to tether Obama's message of hope with what they saw as Wright's message of hate. In one sermon, Wright referred to the United States as the "U.S. of K.K.K.A." In another he suggested the American government had created the AIDS virus to kill off black people. Now, thanks to these comments and others, he threatened to derail Obama's candidacy.

Perhaps in deference to Obama, Wright had been laying low. This was one of his first public appearances in weeks, and he was making it solely because of his devotion to Haynes, one of his favorite disciples.

The invitation was an equally bold move for Haynes, who was on the cusp of becoming a national figure in his own right. Several weeks before, word had leaked that he was one of three finalists to lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The position would be the fulfillment of Haynes' lifelong dream to be a national civil rights leader, an opportunity for him to become a modern-day version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As someone who had taken protests to the streets and decried poverty from the pulpit, Haynes seemed like the perfect man to revitalize an organization drifting toward irrelevancy.

Yet for some, Haynes seemed too polarizing. Like his mentor Wright, Haynes preached a gospel known as black liberation theology, which held that the way to lift blacks out of the mire of poverty and imprisonment was not to rely on the noblesse oblige of the white establishment, as had been done for generations, but instead to fight it, to break it down and to build a system in its place that empowered blacks to operate on equal footing with whites.

Others saw him as a hypocrite. For all his talk of helping the poor and sheltering the homeless, he had built a lavish $32 million church in one of the poorest parts of town and stood to profit even more from a planned real estate development on land adjacent to the church. More important, it seemed he had embraced the very white power structure he so often condemned, playing a key role in the 2007 mayoral election of Tom Leppert and becoming a powerful southern sector ally for the new mayor.

But Haynes had answers for his detractors and spun those answers into reasons he should lead the NAACP. His support of Leppert, a pro-establishment candidate, proved that Haynes could work with the white business community, an essential trait for anyone who wanted to lead the civil rights organization.

His association with Jeremiah Wright was another matter. Wright had become a liability to Obama, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that to gain the nomination, Obama would have to denounce Wright or distance himself from him. Already, others were beginning to do just that.

Considering how mainstream the NAACP had become, Haynes was taking no small risk in inviting Wright to speak at his church. In fact, he seemed to relish the controversy that surrounded the man he affectionately called Daddy J. It had made him angry, the way the media had twisted his mentor's words, taking a sound bite out of context and reducing a "brilliant" man to a racist stooge. Like so many other things, it seemed a personal affront to his own blackness.

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