Prophets Without Honor
It is Sunday evening, and the church of the free market is in session. Joe Howard and Chevis King Jr. preach the word from their electronic pulpit--a biweekly radio show on KRLD-AM. This evening's sermon deals with what King calls "the exportation of socialism in Dallas."
"We are two black men fully grown, and we are here to stop the proliferation of socialism within the borders of Texas and America," King says in a folksy, measured oratory.
"That's right, Chevis," Howard says, sounding tougher, more urban. "Gosh, this is America."
As preachers they are understated. Think Tony Evans polish with T.D. Jakes fire. Their clothing is casual, yet meticulously kept--freshly laundered shirts, knife-pleat pants, and fedoras. They deal with one another as if they were an old married couple. They finish each other's thoughts and sentences. They get one another's jokes.
"Hey Joe--what do you call a misery merchant? What do you call somebody who just goes out and raises hell? I call him a county commissioner. I call him president of the NAACP."
"But Chevis, that is what they are trained to do," Howard counters. "Although I don't know what the commissioner is doing out there. I suspect it's because he has a boring job."
This night, parishioners ring through the main line to talk about the protest at Mayor Ron Kirk's home. About 40 people, led by NAACP president Lee Alcorn and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, had marched in front of the mayor's house in East Dallas protesting what they perceive as Kirk's lack of leadership. But Chevis King sees the whole scenario as a parable about the confusion that reigns in black Dallas.
"Let me tell you folks, when people aren't doing their jobs, they tend to distract and blame someone else," King says, sounding like an elder sage.
"It's not equality," Howard continues. "What we are working toward is equality. Stop raising hell. Drop your buckets like Booker T. Washington said, and help black folks get on down the road."
The best way to do this--according to this duo's Sunday-school prescription--is through practice and a devout belief in the free market. Howard and King say it's the way to lift black people from the misery they're in. It will revitalize neighborhoods, bring the unruly youngsters into line by providing them with jobs, create stronger families, rebuild self-esteem.
"When you practice pure capitalism, it creates an environment whereby that individual who is down on the bottom can one day see something that will spark him or her to rise up," King says later. He is animated now, caught up as the gospel he's preached for the last five years rolls out of him.
"There are black people who need this information," Howard continues, as if on cue. "If you want to change the condition of your neighborhood, City Hall can't do it. White folks won't help you. The people who live in the community are responsible for it. So how do you take care of that? Control consumer behavior. Strip-mine black consumerism. Sell people stuff."
It seems a simplistic solution to a problem that has vexed politicians, preachers, and activists alike. But mustard-seed faith has been known to move mountains--and Howard and King believe they were called to deliver this message. For the last five years, the duo have created a forum for their sermons in The Black Economic Times, a 10,000-circulation, twice-monthly paper that cheerleads for black entrepreneurs and extols the virtues of the free market. They have also tried to reach a listening audience through a two-hour radio show on KSKY, a low-powered AM station.
The results have been far less than dramatic. Few people heard the radio show, although it was broadcast weekly for four years. And their paper pulpit has only just this past year broken even, despite King's and Howard's meager salaries and resources.
But the pair think they've gotten their big break with KRLD's recent decision to pick up their show every other Sunday night. It's the first time, in fact, that they haven't had to pay to get on the air.
Like all good prophets, King and Howard say their trials are merely tests of faith--just like the fickle advertising, decrepit office space, lean finances, and what they perceive as a virtual boycott of them and their ideas by the leaders of black Dallas through a conspiracy of silence.
"We have been in the marketplace since 1992, and we listen. We don't hear Black Economic Times being mentioned," Howard says. "Which is really kind of bizarre. Those folks [in the black media] are talking about fairness and equity in reporting, yet they have not reached out for a balanced kind of information. They won't talk to us."
Their toiling hasn't gone completely unnoticed. Willis Johnson, host of the nationally syndicated show Impact and a popular early-morning host for KKDA-AM radio, says that King and Howard are necessary voices in Dallas' black community. While they are taking a different path to get there, they share the same goal as the city's traditional black leaders: improvement.
"I look at Chevis and Joe as castor oil," Johnson says. "It is a bitter pill, but in the long run it will clean out your system and will be good for you."
This may be the year that the two reap their blessings. The duo's stint on KRLD is a desperately needed boost, exposing them to a much larger, more diverse audience. The paper's new launch in Fort Worth this month will cast their message farther afield. After enduring obscurity and near poverty, Howard and King believe their efforts will finally take them into the promised land of a stronger, more economically viable black community and riches for themselves.
"I don't kid Chevis, and he don't kid me. We both want to be wealthy," Howard says. "And we are going to be wealthy--wealthy beyond anybody's imagination. We knew that we wanted to change this runaway train of black consumerism. If we can move it to the right or to the left a little bit, there is a lot of money to be made."
The Black Economic Times' temple of capitalism is housed in a nondescript office building on Young Street in downtown Dallas. The office itself is rather ordinary--unassuming wood paneling on the walls, unremarkable carpet, typical office-supply furniture.
But it is a step up. Their last home in the decrepit Westcliff mall featured '70s-vintage shag carpets, air conditioning that usually didn't work, and a property owner who developed a habit of not paying the mall's utility bills.
One thing hasn't changed, though: There are papers piled everywhere--on tabletops, chairs, the floor--in no discernible order. The sight of so much debris doesn't exactly inspire awe. To the contrary, one wonders how they ever manage to put out a single issue.
It's a small operation, Howard explains. His son, Blaine Jon Howard, does most of the editorial work, from editing copy to layout to writing stories. Howard sells ads, handles freelancers, and makes sure that papers get dropped at the churches and barbershops. King sells ads and pays the bills.
Howard, 54, and King, 55, met in 1992--introduced to each other through Howard's wife and King's daughter. The two women worked together, and sometimes Howard gave the women rides to work. As Howard would talk, Vernona King would remark how similar his views sounded to her father's. After months of cajoling, Howard finally called King at his home in Oklahoma City. Within 20 minutes, King knew he had found a kindred spirit. "It was fate," King says.
King was considering starting a newspaper to espouse the virtues of free-market capitalism around the same time Howard was looking for a new challenge. Both men had recently lost businesses. So King made Howard an offer: Help him start a newspaper, and eventually he'd earn a piece of it. Howard agreed.
A newspaper may seem an unlikely path for two frustrated capitalists trying to make it filthy rich. And even today, the duo's work often seems stuck in the desert-wandering stage. Dallas already has five established, regularly published newspapers catering to the black communities. But Howard and King believe they're leading their people out of a wilderness of bankrupt ideas--and that it will take time to winnow away the idolaters of socialism.
"It will happen," King says. "We live in America; we embrace capitalism. Talent alone won't do it for us. Persistence will. The truth will. Capitalism is our ministry. We were chosen to do it."
The pair launched The Black Economic Times five years ago with $4,000 and big dreams. The men projected it would take a mere couple of years for King to recoup his investment. They naively believed that once black people read the paper and saw the truth, leaders and regular folks alike would, in the words of their idol Booker T., "throw down their buckets" and become independent through hard, honest work.
"But we didn't do nearly as good as we thought," King says, chuckling.
That first year, the paper ran out of money after just a few issues. Advertising money wasn't coming in. Businesses were slow to accept them, often downright frosty. To keep the paper afloat, King cashed in some bonds he'd bought years ago--netting him $10,000. Had he held on to them, they would have matured this year and paid $26,000.
The paper has survived, in large part, because of personal sacrifices. King's wife, Margie, helps through the lean times by working as a manager in a chain clothing store. Howard's wife, Sherry, takes work when necessary to keep the family afloat. Right now, she's working for a formal company through prom season.
King and Howard pay themselves pittance salaries; Howard took home $16,800 last year, while King took in just over $19,000. They plow most of their money back into the paper and radio show.
While the paper has been built on the toil of the two men and Howard's son, it is not an equal partnership. King owns the paper; it was his idea, and the name and concept are his intellectual property. Howard's reward for five years of toil is his own franchise in Fort Worth. The arrangement is a good one, King says.
"Joe never had a problem with knowing that I am the chief here and the leader," he says. "There is a respect for his talents and a respect for mine and for me as the owner."
Howard says it's even more basic than that. "I wouldn't tolerate a blow-out from Chevis, and he wouldn't from me," he says. "Hell, we're too old."
Rather transparently, Howard appears glad for the opportunity to branch out on his own. His son describes him as a wildcatter: a man who can divine an opportunity, strike at it, and move on. "He can see oil in Fort Worth," Blaine says. "Hopefully, he'll hit a gusher."
The paper itself is a tabloid-size tome, looking a bit crude graphically, like a high-school paper. Its main staples are breezily written articles championing black-owned businesses and columns by black conservatives, entrepreneurs, and Libertarians. It scores some of its impact with provocative, even taunting headlines.
"Are Black Retailers Wimps or What?" screams one such message in bold red letters in an October issue. The story, penned by Blaine Jon Howard, decried the lack of black investors willing to open shops on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas.
Another story, about a large black church group losing a HUD contract, takes the church folks to task for thinking they were owed the contract merely because they were black, and their church was in the neighborhood. "It is no longer a game of popularity," the paper declared. "The game is economics."
The paper's path to capitalist heaven is the Beacon Economic Plan; King designed it nearly a decade ago, while watching his manufacturing business crumble. Through a chart pegged to an individual's weekly income, the plan tells people how much money to spend with black-owned businesses each week in order to spark an economic renaissance. Different columns extrapolate the impact of those dollars on black businesses--in the form of expansions, start-ups, and new hires. For example, if a person making $193 to $288 a week would spend $39 of it with black-owned businesses, that individual would channel $2,028 a year into the black community--and that's not even taking into account the multiplier effect. King's plan for the Dallas-Fort Worth area foresees a potential for $360 million in economic development and 5,700 new jobs.
King says his plan is as old as America, and has been practiced by every immigrant group that's come here: The Irish, Italians, Jews, Koreans, and Chinese all used a similar plan of economic reinvestment to improve their lot and status. It's the only kind of affirmative action, he adds, that works: black people selling things to black people.
"Trading transcends every language, color, religion," King says. "Right now we've got Jews trading with Arabs, blacks trading with whites, whites trading with Mexicans. What we don't have are blacks trading with blacks. We are propping up everyone else."
"We are a powerless people right now because we are consumers only in the largest capitalist country on the planet," Howard adds. "That is why we are marginalized."
Despite its simplicity, the Beacon Plan hasn't been embraced by black Dallas. When the paper's first issue came out in June of 1992, it was met with silence. Although Howard and King fielded a few calls of praise, the good intentions didn't immediately translate into advertising.
The duo explain away this lack of interest as part of a greater conspiracy to silence them. They say they knew they'd get some negative reactions in the beginning, but didn't realize the extent of it. They blame the poor response on Dallas' "anointed" black leadership.
"We were relying on black leaders to see the potential of capitalism--that free enterprise would enrich them," Howard says. "We were counting on black preachers to realize how this would benefit them. We were hoping that once we exchanged ideas, the talking heads would say, 'Gosh, this could work.' But we are being led by men who have never understood how America really works."
Critics say, however, that it's King and Howard who don't understand how the market works. Thurman Jones owns Minority Opportunity News, a monthly paper that deals primarily with black issues. Jones, who publishes the professionally produced, generally well-written paper, says there isn't anything so special about King's and Howard's message that would garner them such conspiratorial ire.
"The truth is, a lot of papers already here are marginal, and they barely have any editorial bite," he says. "What makes them so special?"
But King and Howard clearly enjoy their role as persecuted outsiders. The failure of their paper to take off as quickly as they had predicted becomes evidence of the truth of their mission. Their forced asceticism becomes an emblem of faith.
"Our persecution is real," King contends. "It makes our job more difficult. But that's what happened to a lot of folks who were trailblazers. It happened to Colonel Sanders. It happened to George Washington Carver. We look at the numbers and the potential out there. It will happen to us."
Howard and King lay the blame for the black community's dire state on its traditional leaders, a group they call the unholy trinity: politicians, preachers, and political activists.
These leaders have led people down a socialist path, stressing reliance on the government, white guilt, and upward mobility as a way out of poverty, Howard says. The debate, they say, has been one-sided, spawning its own rhetoric of promises and deferred dreams.
In this ocean of words, Howard and King swim upstream. They make their journey harder by attacking the sacred, making venomous assertions about the legacy of what they term "the civil rights industry."
"We defy anybody from the civil rights industry to specifically tell black folks what they have achieved in the last 30 years," King says. "The real harm of the civil rights industry is that the majority of decent, law-abiding, God-fearing black folks are under house arrest. That house arrest is having bars on the windows, bars on the doors. They get up every day and unlock themselves from jails. They come home before dark, and lock themselves up in their jails again. Since the Civil Rights bill, things have gotten much, much worse."
King and Howard sit back, allowing the shock of the words to sink in. The two acknowledge that racism exists. But their take on it is that you have to learn how to manage it. Racism is an adversity you learn to forbear while making your way in the free market.
The duo's cocksure statements have their charm, but tend to make them seem not of this world.
"Are these people not in touch with reality?" asks Kenneth M. Hamilton, an associate professor of history and director of ethnic studies at Southern Methodist University. His voice is incredulous.
Hamilton sees Howard and King as part of a post-Nixon blame-the-victim rhetoric that's cropped up among some black people. They misappropriate Booker T. Washington for their purposes, he says. Washington never assessed the blame for poverty to blacks; he exhorted both rich white Northerners and well-to-do blacks to help those under them.
"Their school of thought is opportunistic," he says. "They have taken a conservative concept to the land of absurdity."
King and Howard spend a great deal of their energy attacking affirmative action--what they term "socialism at its worst." Their attacks have a personal edge: Both men owned businesses which they say failed, in part, because of their belief in and use of minority set-aside programs.
The problem is that affirmative action doesn't really help black people, King says.
"Their leaders don't ever tell that they are getting beat in affirmative action by the Koreans or the Japanese," he says. "No, what these leaders do is press for a bigger slice of the pie. But black folk still get less than 2 percent of the affirmative action."
"So what happens, the minority goals are being met and oftentimes exceeded, but black folk still aren't happy," Howard adds. "But they have no real complaint or legal redress other than to agitate, litigate, and demonstrate."
Affirmative action is anathema to competition, the duo say. It fools black people into thinking that only a limited number of jobs are available, creating an atmosphere of tension and crabbing.
"I think that in some instances, Chevis and Joe's views are so much to the extreme that they run counter to the spirit of the community," he says. "I think that black folks are conservative, but they believe in things like affirmative action. Some people think that those two have an honorary membership in the John Birch Society."
On the radio, Howard and King amp up their sermons to an incendiary level. They've got the renegade outsider routine down, having honed it on KSKY for years. One week, while guests on a conservative talk show broadcast in Omaha, Nebraska, King told the audience how traditional black leadership--such as the NAACP--uses black people like property, much the same way slave owners peddled their people as chattel. "They say, 'We've got some good black folks here for you and if you don't use them, we won't shop with you.' It's economic extortion," King said.
They've found their best radio audiences outside the area, where radio stations, both liberal and conservative, have asked them to spout their views. They've made 70 appearances over the last five years.
Yet, despite their best efforts, Howard and King remain prophets without honor in their hometown.
"I can't comment on them--I'm just not a regular reader," says Jim Washington, publisher of The Dallas Weekly, the largest-circulation black newspaper in town. While he allows that their point of view has its place, he doesn't buy the pair's renegade shtick. "The African-American community is not a monolith," he says. "Somewhere in the middle lie the vast majority of us."
Howard and King took different roads to their free-market conversion experiences. But both complain they were betrayed by the very government programs designed to help them.
King is a self-made man. He got his GED while in the military after dropping out of high school. He took numerous college courses, but never earned a degree. Yet he speaks with a use of language that shows he has read a great deal.
His wife of 35 years, Margie, says her husband has always been a planner. She tells the story of how her then-future husband told her, at age 16, what sort of car he'd drive by the time he was 30. Then in 1967, a few months after his 30th birthday, he bought it--a pale yellow Cadillac Coupe De Ville.
"He was always pushing, saying that he could do things, always setting goals," Mrs. King says. "It has always been his strength."
That sense of purpose was important, she says, during the lean times. She looked at him and fed from his strength. "It's like breathing--that part of him that is so committed," she says. "Sometimes it scares me."
After working for such companies as Honeywell, General Electric, and Control Data, King decided to be his own boss. He and a partner took over a small manufacturing plant in northeast Oklahoma City. The plant at first tested computer equipment, and manufactured aircraft parts. He changed the product line to include telephones, and fuel cells for planes. King registered the company, Adroit Manufacturing, as a minority contractor and received government work through set-aside programs. For nearly 10 years the company did well, at its high point pulling in $900,000 in gross profits, King says.
But in 1984, the Federal Aviation Administration, the company's largest contractor, accused King of underpaying his employees. King fought the charge, but the FAA took away his contract, awarding it to a white female business owner in Dallas, he says. King sued the FAA, demanding $450,000 in damages. As the suit dragged through the courts for years, King saw his reputation as a manufacturer plummet. He lost more contracts. He cut back on staff. Eventually he sold off his equipment and rented out the building. Some four years later, he received a settlement: $60,506.98.
"It was all very devastating," he says. "When I used to hear stories about the government and what it had done to other black businesses, I thought, 'How could this be?' I thought something else was underlying it until it happened to me."
King's experiences with Adroit led him to the belief that government contracts are a trap. "I've never had any desire to do government work again," he says. "And I have no love or affinity for affirmative action because it is the road to devastation."
Howard's experiences with set-aside programs were equally dispiriting. Howard grew up in Abilene and spent four years in the Navy. He and his wife, Sherry, moved to Dallas for Howard's job with AT&T. While he worked, Howard attended school at UTA. After 10 years of part-time study, he graduated with a degree in marketing.
Soon afterward, Howard stumbled into a job as a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch in downtown Dallas. Through much of the 1980s, he moved from brokerage to brokerage, helping buy and sell high-flying leveraged stock accounts.
Sherry, his wife of 32 years, says her husband has always been stubborn and never liked taking orders from people. He did what he had to, always with an eye toward moving on. He always discussed those moves with her. And she always supported them. "It takes a little bit of adjustment," she says, "but in the long run, things always work out."
In 1985, Howard and two other black brokers started their own company, Howard, Smith, Williams. They capitalized on a move by municipal pension-fund managers to set aside some of their business for minority firms. At first, work was steady. "It was very stable," Howard says. "We didn't have to guess if the money was going to come in."
But after some legal challenges, most municipalities discontinued the program. The company's customer base was drying up--a problem compounded by the stock market crash a year later, in 1987.
"With the stock market crashing, there is a certain amount of tell-tale signs you can rely on," Howard says. "But the affirmative action--what killed us was that we couldn't control our business. You had no control over the amount of business they gave you.
"No matter how well you do or how good the price or the product is, in affirmative action you can't control your consumer. And that's not the free market. Damn, it really sucks."
These days, King and Howard invest their energy in the Beacon Economic plan, their simple method to bring the black community into capitalist nirvana.
But is it viable? In some ways, says Kathy Hayes, an SMU economics professor. "I think that if it were a PR piece, it raises all the right issues," she says. "But it is still unclear to me what the benefits are for buying in the black communities."
Hamilton, the SMU historian, is more blunt. "It is a self-serving, bankrupt philosophy," he says. "What is buying black going to do for black people without a black bank?"
Hamilton argues that the Beacon Plan is merely exploiting the consumer, making them buy things that are usually priced higher and of lower quality just to get a feel-good ethnic rush. The plan is short-sighted, he adds, because no group can finance its own economic development. The government, he adds, should do the right thing by compensating black people "for what happened to them."
Howard and King scoff in return--skewering the "gimme" attitudes they say have put black people in the predicament they're in.
King says his plan is deliberately simple because the workings of capitalism are simple. "Creating a dynamic of triumph in this community doesn't mean you have to be an accountant," he says. "Economics is just buying and selling."
Howard and King point to Dothan, Alabama, as a measure of their success. The town of about 55,000 is situated amid farmland that has earned it the nickname "Peanut Capital of the World." Some 27 percent of the population is black.
Howard and King found their way into the airwaves of Dothan over a year ago, when a black-owned gospel station picked up their show--the only station among 200 they'd contacted that accepted it. For 10 months, the Howard/King Show occupied a premier time slot, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily. The duo talked about how to start a business, what problems plagued the black community, and how capitalism could straighten it all out.
And this time, people listened. James "J.R." Wilson, who owns the radio station, says ratings were excellent. The duo built up a large following doling out "powerful information." "I see the results," he says. "We have had a few more blacks who have spread their wings and went into business. I've seen the business climate improve."
One of those who launched a business was Annie Newby, a 47-year-old rental agent. She says she liked the idea of shopping at black-owned businesses and being her own boss. The message spurred her to start a few businesses of her own: a religious newspaper and a calendar company. "They have been a big inspiration to people in Dothan," Newby says.
Newby, whose husband is a minister, says she has no problem with Howard's and King's harsh attitudes toward the black church leadership. "The truth should hurt," she says. "If we don't have ministers telling us the truth, it's the blind leading the blind."
This past weekend, Dothan held its first "100 Black Men Coalition" conference that brought together budding entrepreneurs from all over the city. The event, organized by Wilson, was a direct result of the Howard/King Show, he says.
"I'm glad that there are other people out there who think the way I think," Wilson says. "We are finally starting to realize we have to depend upon ourselves rather than other sources."
The irony, though, is that Howard and King had to pull their show off the air in January in Dothan, because they could no longer afford the time slot.
Howard says now he knows how the Apostle Paul felt when he established a church in Corinth. He'll make a missionary journey to Dothan for the meeting, offering advice and encouragement. Yet his accomplishment is tinged with bitterness; they don't hear him in Dallas.
"I'm not going to get a love right away, but I just keep doing it," Howard says. "But we know that the majority of people feel like we do. They are ready for the truth."
While Howard and King's confidence at times borders on arrogance, they don't have the wild-eyed look of windmill-tilting dreamers. But even one of their ideological soulmates, New York's Elizabeth Wright, who publishes Issues & Views, another conservative, black-oriented publication, sees their optimism as misplaced. "I think that blacks have been so co-opted by affirmative action and liberals offering them a better deal in terms of getting an easier ride," she says. "I don't think that anytime in our lifetime are they going to turn their backs on that."
Wright is an embittered prophet; she has lost her faith in capitalism as the cure-all, and hopes to turn around just a few people. Her column appears regularly in the Black Economic Times. She assigns any hopes for the future to those who haven't lost their faith.
Howard and King say they're up to the task.
"Our message is America," King says. "Take the opportunity to compete in the open market. We believe we will prevail. And if we prevail, so will America.
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