The Man Who Would Be King

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

"They're trying to make a circus out of the whole thing," he said of the news trucks outside his church. "They have tried to lynch him, but the brother keeps coming back."

The rapturous crowd rose to its feet, hollering hallelujahs and waving white hankies as Wright took his place at the pulpit. He made a joke about minding his manners, and then he let it rip. He condemned as racist the criminal justice system that had put Charles Chatman, the 15th black inmate in Dallas County to be exonerated through DNA evidence since 2001, in jail for 27 years. He criticized the U.S. government for the way it ignored the plight of countries such as Darfur, Rwanda and Sudan, while it rushed to the aid of "white" countries. And those who couldn't see racism in Hurricane Katrina and Jena, Louisiana, were blind.

Yes, black people had been wronged again and again. But that wasn't the point. The key was to let Jesus into your life and to stop feeling sorry for yourself. You could do anything you wanted, he said, maybe even become the first black president of the United States. And maybe, if you were lucky, you could become pastor of "the baddest church in Dallas, Texas."

Zan Holmes, an old lion of the civil rights movement, took Haynes under his wing, teaching him how to use his church to empower the community.
Brian Harkin
Zan Holmes, an old lion of the civil rights movement, took Haynes under his wing, teaching him how to use his church to empower the community.
For all his talk of helping the poor and sheltering the homeless, he has built a lavish $32 million church in one of the poorest parts of town.
Brian Harkin
For all his talk of helping the poor and sheltering the homeless, he has built a lavish $32 million church in one of the poorest parts of town.

No one can say with certainty what effect Wright's sermon had that day, but by the end of the week, Wright would no longer be Obama's pastor. And by the end of the month, Haynes would no longer be the frontrunner to lead the NAACP.

Had Haynes' commitment to Wright's brand of theology—the very thing that had shaped his ministry and brought him so much success—derailed his chance to lead the nation's oldest civil rights organization?

————

Like his father and his grandfather before him, Freddy Haynes seemed destined to become a preacher. As a boy, he often stood in his grandmother's living room on Southland Road and delivered sermons while one of his younger sisters played the part of choir director. Even then he had a gift.

Although born in Dallas, he grew up in Palo Alto, California, home to Stanford University, in a progressive, mostly white, middle-class neighborhood. In the classroom, no one made an issue of the color of his skin. His first experience with racism came at the age of 7, when on a Christmas trip to visit relatives in Dallas, he and the other blacks on the bus were required to stay in their seats and eat once they crossed into Texas, while the white passengers got off to dine in restaurants. He asked his aunt why, and she wouldn't tell him. That's just the way things were in 1967.

The next year, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Haynes does not remember where he was that day, but he does recall sitting in his parents' living room watching the funeral of a man who had once preached in his grandfather's church.

When his family moved from Palo Alto to the urban angst of San Francisco in the early '70s, things started to change. One night he answered the phone to hear death threats against his father from people who thought the popular preacher was connected to the Zebra Killers, a black supremacist group that murdered 16 white people. "My eyes were starting to open up to the fact that there's something in this world that's different as far as blacks and whites," Haynes says.

At 14, Haynes' father had a stroke at the pulpit while delivering the morning announcements. Haynes was sitting in the balcony, not paying attention, when he heard the thud of his father's head as it hit the lectern. When a nurse at the hospital came and told him that his father had died, he ran to a window and thought about jumping. He felt God was punishing him for not listening in church.

For years, he says, he was lost to God and vowed he would not become a preacher. Now the man of the house, he took a job as a busboy in a downtown San Francisco steakhouse to help his mother support the family. One night, a white patron tripped him as he was walking across the dining room. Just 15, Haynes was stunned when he looked up and saw the man laughing. "Hey, Mo," the diner said to the manager, "come get your little nigger because he just wasted our dinner, and I don't appreciate that." Haynes protested, but his boss ordered him to clean up the mess. It was Haynes' first taste of unbridled racism, and the humiliation of it would never leave him.

At 18, he left San Francisco for Dallas to attend the now defunct Bishop College, a Baptist-affiliated, historically black school. Both his father and grandfather were well-known at the college, which had a strong religion department, and Haynes says he was determined to let everyone know he would not follow in their footsteps. "The first year every student has to take a religion class, and I made sure I was going to flunk that class," he says. "I was just not going to be a preacher."

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