The Man Who Would Be King

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

It is easy to be skeptical of Haynes' intentions. The cynic would see his talk of community building as a well-crafted sales pitch. His church, after all, is the owner of the land where he plans to build his urban village, and his wife, a commercial real estate agent, has already listed the planned retail space there for sale. Every week, Haynes' deacons pass around the collection bucket, often with a not-so-subtle nudge from Haynes, reminding them of the village they all want to build together.

Tithing is made easier by Haynes' captivating, even mesmerizing pulpit presence. He hops around the stage, drenched in sweat, his voice rising and falling as he sprinkles Scripture with well-known gospel lyrics, at times adopting a sort of hip-hop cadence. In his finely tailored suits, he seems a man with a larger-than-life personality, imposing and unapproachable.

But friends say that away from the pulpit, he is just the opposite—shy, introverted, more likely to sit and listen than to dominate a conversation, a man whose idea of a good time is to bake cookies with his 15-year-old daughter.

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.

In many ways, Haynes is a throwback to the role traditionally held by black ministers. He is part political activist and part community organizer, after the order of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In December, he took 10 busloads of people from Dallas to join Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for a march in Jena, Louisiana, where tension between blacks and whites had bubbled over in a series of racial incidents that resulted in violence. In January, he stood on the steps of Arlington City Hall, a member of his congregation beside him, demanding that the city pay for her garage door, which had been defaced with the words "Die Nigger."

Today, Friendship West hews as closely to black liberation theology as any church in America. In so doing, the church is going against the grain. "Historically, the black church was the only place African-Americans could go to speak their minds, to hear a word that would comfort the racism and injustice that was haunting them, and there's been a total shift away from that," says Stacey Floyd-Thomas, director of black church studies at Texas Christian University's Brite Divinity School. "Friendship West represents the best of the black church tradition. It is a village, a community and a place where black people who have been oppressed and ignored and treated as less-than are affirmed and celebrated."

His congregation has felt that affirmation as Haynes has quietly built a base of power at Friendship West. Three years ago, he led a drive to kill Laura Miller's strong mayor referendum, which Haynes considered racist, mobilizing blacks in southern Dallas to vote in record numbers. The next day, May 9, 2005, at Friendship West, a 71-year-old man who had lived in Dallas his entire life told The Dallas Morning News he had never seen anything like it. "Black people are finally going to realize how much power they have," he said, fighting back tears. "In future years, when we win more elections, we're going to remember [this] day."

And yet for all his sermonizing about white oppression, Haynes seems something of a contradiction, recently aligning himself with the same white power structure in Dallas that he preaches against. Last spring, he became the first prominent black minister to support Leppert, a Turner Construction chief executive with no political experience, in his bid for mayor. Haynes also opened up Friendship West to a well-attended mayoral debate, a departure from a previous promise to make his pulpit off-limits to political candidates.

To some, it seemed Haynes had done an about face, opting for Leppert over the only black in the race, former city Councilman Don Hill. How could he support a man who had the backing of the Dallas Citizen's Council, a secretive organization that once fought the NAACP over allowing blacks and whites to ride together on the bumper cars at the Texas State Fair?

Haynes' endorsement of Leppert, which played out in radio advertisements that ran in heavy rotation on the city's hip-hop and gospel stations, proved pivotal, and Leppert carried the black vote on his way to taking the race in a rout. The relationship did not end after the election. Leppert still shows up at Haynes' church, often when the mayor needs help, as he did last fall when he needed votes to defeat the Trinity River referendum.

"It's an illicit relationship, and it's not a healthy relationship for people of color or low-income people," Johnson says. "They've allowed the good old boy structure to come back...Freddy Haynes is part of that inner circle now. He's a gatekeeper for the rest of the black community."

But Haynes says his critics are missing the point. "I never asked [Leppert] for anything in exchange for my support," he says. "My only request was that he be true to his vision for an economic balance in the city and work with us to help lift up this side of town."

His association with Leppert also gives Haynes' message a broader appeal, one that incorporates the spiritual needs of a burgeoning black middle class that must work within the established order as it attempts to change it. Much of his church's recent growth has been fueled by the growth of this group, which has moved into suburbs as far north as Allen, McKinney and Denton. Like the white mega-churches that began springing up in the '80s, churches like Friendship West have become a spiritual home to blacks who have left their traditional communities, or to those who feel the black church has abandoned its true message. "There is a rootlessness that I think people in the suburbs feel, and that's why they make the drive, because there's a sense of connection that I think everyone wants to feel," Haynes says.

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