Seeking 21st-century leaders

Friday, February 9, 2007

During February, Black History Month, schoolchildren learn about icons from the past. They fill their heads with dates and facts about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

But what about the present? Who are the men and women shaping the future of Cape Girardeau and its black community?

The Southeast Missourian spoke with five local black leaders to get their views on who in the community will tackle problems like low graduation rates, high rates of arrest, and wage disparity between blacks and whites in the 21st century.

Marvin McBride, vice president of the 2-year-old Southside Optimist Club, said he's disappointed by what he sees among local people in leadership roles. "Inside the churches, they're all for that. The pastors lead there. But outside in the community I've got to wonder, where are the leaders?

"Where are the people who black youth can go talk to if they have a problem? Where are we? And I include myself. Who can they bring concerns to and look for help? They're not there. And then we wonder why drug use is so rampant and why we have problems like babies having babies."

McBride thinks the best start to lifting up the black population, particularly on the south side of the city, is to build a community center there, a place with basketball courts, baseball diamonds and computers. A safe place for constructive activity.

Building the structure is the stated mission of the Optimists, but McBride is frustrated he can't get the entire community, white and black, to come on board with the idea.

"Once you've made it in life and succeed, you've got to reach back to pull somebody else up with you. That's your obligation. ... And not enough of us want to do that."

Though the community center is many years and many dollars away from being built, McBride and the Optimists are taking small steps toward lifting up their community. This month they are sponsoring an essay contest for junior high students in which they write about someone who inspired them. The 12 winning students will take an etiquette class, followed by a meal at Mollie's Cafe and Bar.

NaTika Rowles is president of the Optimists and executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Cape Girardeau at 232 Broadway. She shares some of McBride's concerns but with a tempered view.

"Before we say there's a lack of leaders, I'd say there's a lack of things that our kids have access to. So people in leadership roles like pastors have to try to give the kids something to fill that gap," she said.

Like McBride she believes the programs run by the black community and for the black community are not coordinated and do not always complement one another.

For example, each church has its own ministries and outreach, but the impact would be greater if there were collaboration, she said.

Rowles said the black community uses no single voice or group to take political stances or bring about social improvement. She recently served on the committee to create a comprehensive plan for Cape Girardeau schools and the River Corridor Task Force to target and lift up young people in south Cape Girardeau and the Red Star area.

But she still wonders, despite this flurry of interest, whether black students will continue to be left behind.

"My goal is that everyone who is trying to target youth come together on one page and say, 'This is how we're going to do it, and this is what the kids in Cape Girardeau are lacking,'" she said.

Spiritual leaders

But what about the spiritual leaders? Is it their responsibility to get more involved in political issues and go outside their congregations?

The Rev. Cecil B. Thomas came to Cape Girardeau two years ago from Arkansas. Outspoken and outgoing, he does not shy away from saying what he thought about the city at first blush.

"We're behind. We're behind Arkansas as far as racial equality and unity," he said. "We need leadership badly. ... My concern is truly that there is a lack of unity, kindness, respect, gratitude in the black community. Especially among the leaders."

Thomas lists unity as his top goal, saying if Cape Girardeau is confronted with a unified front of the black religious community it will be forced to listen.

"Right now everyone is satisfied doing their own thing. Church of God and Christ does one thing, House of Hope does another and we do another. Everybody is satisfied in doing their own thing, confident in their religious belief."

In light of that, last year Thomas organized the first Gathering of Saints and Fellowship where ministers and congregants from every predominantly black church could come to worship together. The event, he said, was a first in recent years.

The Rev. William Bird Sr. is of the old school. A minister for 47 years, he believes religion and politics should not mix.

"Who has determined pastors are supposed to take the lead? Some pastors don't feel comfortable counseling folks. Who is to say I'm not a good leader just because I'm not counseling on political issues?"

Bird believes the responsibility lies with the congregation to make pastors aware of what's going on in the political realm."It's like if you're chopping a tree with a dull ax, you have to work a lot harder," he said. "Information, good information, sharpens that ax."

Dr. A.G. Green of Rhema Word Breakthrough International Ministries, which he started eight years ago, disagrees, saying ministers have always been at the forefront.

A former NAACP leader in Sikeston, he points to heroes of the civil rights movement like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was also a minister.

"As a pastor, I don't just have an obligation to people behind four walls when they come to church, because they live out in that other world. It's difficult to minster to them spiritually if they have worldly hurts," he said.

Green agrees there is a leadership void in the black community and believes it could be filled by restarting the local NAACP chapter, which disbanded several years ago.

"I'm looking for that leader," Green said. "I'm trying to garner grassroots support to restart the chapter here."

Some say there are a lot of trailblazers still out there. Understanding this, Rowles has a special exercise planned for the Optimist Club's next meeting.

"Next time we meet we're going to make a list of firsts and onlys, and it's amazing how many of them are still there," Rowles said, referring to the first or only black representatives of certain positions in Cape Girardeau.

Quickly she ticked off a few. Frank Ellis, principal of Central Middle School, was the first black principal of an integrated school when hired by Alma Schrader. Michelle Gary of the Cape Girardeau Police Department is the only female black police officer. And JoAnn McCauley of House of Hope was the first black female minister in town.

"These are people our children can meet and be inspired by. They can touch and feel them now, today. You don't always have to go back in the history books to before we were born," Rowles said.

tgreaney@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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