The Man Who Would Be King

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

Several prominent members of Friendship West say they were attracted to the church for precisely these reasons. Dwaine Caraway, who has belonged to the church for 10 years, said his work tearing down hot-sheet motels and crack houses as a city council member has been inspired by Haynes' message of social activism and community involvement.

District Attorney Craig Watkins, who was baptized a member two years ago, says his much-publicized effort to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates, the majority of whom have been black, was inspired by Haynes. "I think he's given me the courage to do what I know is my duty, in the face of tremendous opposition."

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On May 25, Freddy Haynes returned to the pulpit after a brief absence. The time away had not been good to him or his mentor. At two public appearances immediately following his sermon at Friendship West, one before the NAACP in Washington, D.C., and the other before the National Press Club, Wright appeared defiant and repeated several assertions—among them, how the government created AIDS to kill blacks—that had made him a lightning rod in the first place.

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.

"His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate," Obama said at an April 29 press conference. "They certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs."

Obama's disavowal of Wright stung Haynes. The Illinois senator had met privately with Haynes, seeking his counsel, when he was still mulling a presidential bid. And when Obama later came to Dallas for a February rally, Haynes gave the opening prayer, asking God to protect Obama from all the "haters."

But Haynes' ultimate allegiance was to Wright and what they both stood for.

"A lot of you are mad at Daddy J for what went down on Monday," Haynes told his congregation on May 3, the Sunday following Wright's speech before the National Press Club. "And I'm sorry, I know y'all ticked off at him, but he was a cornered lion... And when a lion's got cornered and they're already wounded, THEY DON'T BACK DOWN!" he shouted.

All Wright was trying to do, Haynes explained, was to educate the nation about the black church. "And then they talk about how he didn't tell the truth about AIDS, how it got here," he said. "Well, you know, I don't know about all that. I do know that if he didn't tell the truth about it, it's understandable. It ain't like the government ain't capable."

His congregation erupted in cheers.

Had Haynes' close relationship with Wright hurt his chances to lead the NAACP? On May 16, he had gone to Baltimore and fully expected to come back to Dallas as the organization's new president. For two months, he had been told that he was the sole candidate for the job, and that the vetting of the two other finalists was a mere formality. And then something happened.

In Baltimore, he sat before the NAACP's 64-member governing body and immediately the questions began. Would he leave his church? No, he said. That was something that had been discussed in the previous interview. Besides, he wouldn't be the first full-time pastor to lead the organization.

"It was like I was being attacked," he would later say. "I told them, 'I'm not your enemy. I never lost you a contract. I never closed a door in your face.'" The NAACP board deliberated for eight hours behind closed doors. In the end, they went with Benjamin Jealous, a 35-year-old Columbia University grad and Rhodes Scholar. According to several news accounts, no one clapped or celebrated when the tally was announced. Many left the room in disbelief that Haynes had not been selected.

Not long after, on blogs across the country, supporters of Haynes expressed their disappointment with the decision. Some wondered if NAACP chairman Julian Bond's alleged support of Hillary Clinton had been a factor. Others wondered if Haynes was too polarizing a figure for the organization at a time in which it seemed a great possibility the United States would elect its first black president. Heber Brown III, a black liberation preacher in Baltimore, wondered on his blog, Faith in Action, if Haynes' ties with Wright had been a problem for the board.

"It's no secret that Haynes is a protégé of Wright and is doing a fantastic job continuing in the Black Liberation Theology tradition," Brown wrote.

Had Haynes' relationship with Wright done him in? At a press conference at his church the day after the decision was announced, Haynes said he didn't think it was a factor. "That is grapevine gossip," he said. "Reverend Wright said, 'Don't let them make me an issue.'"

Haynes was told that the only reason he had not been selected was because he refused to leave Friendship West. While possible, this seems unlikely. The board had known about his commitment to the church for months. The only thing that had changed between then and now was his defense of Wright and Obama's repudiation of him.

But a week after the announcement, when Haynes was again asked if his relationship with Wright might have influenced the organization's decision, he said he had heard that and considered it a possibility.

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