Civil Rights Superstar

Article excerpt

If Jesus Christ were alive on Earth today, he would attack racism by reminding people that, since everyone is created in the image of God, they should behave as God would if He were borrowing a human body on this planet. So says the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, a top general in the civil rights movement who became a congressman for 20 years and a key force in the liberation of South Africa from its system of apartheid racial oppression.

In 1942, Sunday school superintendent Harriet Epps didn't realize it, but her audacious program of finding new children to attend her classes was going to unleash Fauntroy on America and help usher in the country's civil rights revolution less than a generation later. She would scour the streets in the neighborhood of New Bethel Baptist Church in a rundown section of Washington, D.C., looking for boys and girls who were likely Sunday school prospects. She would find them playing, ask where they lived, then approach their parents with an offer of religious instruction for the children.

One of these youngsters was nine-year-old Walter, who went on to become pastor of New Bethel when he was just 25. "I learned everything I needed to know about life in that Sunday school," says Fauntroy, now 69, in an interview.

It was only two years later, under the caring influence of his pastor, C. David Foster, and the chairman of the deacon board, Edward Brent, that he decided to go into the ministry. He preached his first sermon when he was 17, at New Bethel. Other caring adults who nurtured the boy included cubmasters and scoutmasters (who taught him the importance of being "physically fit, mentally awake, and morally straight," a phrase from the Scout Oath) and football and baseball coaches (though small in stature, he was a natural athlete).

DECLARING 'GOOD NEWS'

Fauntroy was also profoundly interested in social change. Well-off Americans' seeming indifference to the poverty he saw all around him offended his sense of compassion. And the "For Whites Only" signs and other manifestations of racism in a supposedly egalitarian nation grated upon his sense of justice. His religious and political bents quickly interlocked and began to work in synch. What particularly fired up his political side was a passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because He has anointed me to declare good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to set at liberty those that are bound." That passage became his watchword. From that point on, his life's goal was to "declare good news to the poor."

"What moved me to become a politician," he says, "was my understanding of the Gospel and of my obligation as a Christian. That obligation is not simply to talk that talk on Sunday--to sing it up from the choir, preach it up from the pulpit, or shout it up from the pews--but when it's over, to do something to provide for 'the least of these!' "

Such "providing" for people, the minister says, sums up what politics is. The process decides who gets how much of what, when, and where in five areas: income, which allows one to have a measure of comfort, contentment, and independence; education, the foundation on which one makes money; health care, which determines whether one lives long enough to enjoy one's accumulated income; housing; and justice.

Also forming the young man's approach to the world were experiences with his father, who was a clerk at the Department of Commerce's Patent Office and who would relate stories of the racial bigotry he encountered at work. "I understood racism," Fauntroy recalls, "through what I heard at the dinner table when the adults were complaining about the way white people treat us and deny us five things: income, education, health care, housing, and justice." The minister's father, who had five other sons and two daughters, started working in the Patent Office as a messenger and after 44 years retired as a clerk, "having lifted two generations of white people over his shoulders to be his supervisors. …