IT'S NOT YOUR FATHER'S NAACP Activism: Young Jamal-Harrison Bryant is taking the venerable, 88-year-old civil rights organization to a hip-hop generation that wasn't alive when Dr. King was.


BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Love Fellowship Tabernacle Church is rocking. Nearly 400 people -- most of them under the age of 30 -- are being whipped into a singing, stomping, praying revival by the church's pastor, Hezekiah Walker, and his Grammy award-winning gospel choir. No one is holding back. They clap hands, hug the people next to them, reassure each other again and again that "Everything is going to be all right."

Outside, the wail of police sirens shatters the stillness of a battered urban neighborhood. But inside the brightly lit church, a celebration of the spirit is under way.

"This is our party!" Pastor Walker exults. "This is how we get down!"

From his chair by the altar, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant moves to the music, caught up in the power of the night. He's the man who organized this gathering. And, for him, it is more than a party. It is a test.

The 25-year-old minister from Baltimore is here on behalf of the country's most venerable civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Over the next three weeks, he'll travel from Florida to California for rallies like this one. His mission: to make the NAACP relevant to young African-Americans.

Can he do it?

Many of the young people at tonight's "Stop the Violence -- Start the Love" rally have been lured here by the immensely popular Pastor Walker. Others have come because they heard this was going to be a tribute to slain rapper Biggie Smalls (aka Notorious B.I.G.), who grew up in Brooklyn. And some are here to hear Bryant, the last speaker of the evening.

His title, NAACP youth director, doesn't carry much weight with these twentysomethings. For most of them, the NAACP is a relic from their parents' and grandparents' time or some dimly remembered passage from a history book.

Roslyn Jarrell, a 19-year-old college student with straight, shoulder-length hair, is typical. She loves Pastor Walker but feels no connection to the NAACP.

"I know they give out scholarships for college," says Jarrell, who was born 10 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., "but I never saw them in my neighborhood. I never saw them in my high school."

The Chavis years

There was a time when the NAACP threatened to make Jarrell and her friends sit up and take notice. That was back when the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad was running the show, holding gang summits and reaching out to the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the fiery head of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan's blatant anti-Semitism made older members of the NAACP uncomfortable. But his message of black empowerment made him a hero on many black college campuses.

But then Chavis Muhammad fell from grace, fired in 1994 for financial improprieties. He later helped Farrakhan organize the Million Man March, basking in the glory of its success while the NAACP struggled to emerge from a mound of debt.

Now, under the direction of president Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP is ready to mount a new campaign for the hearts and minds of the hip-hop generation. And Mfume has turned to Bryant.

"I've known Jamal for the last 10 years or so," says the former congressman, who has always been impressed with Bryant's sincerity, determination and commitment. "When I made the switch to come on board here, it was clear to me he was the best person for the job."

Of the NAACP's more than 400,000 members, at least 70,000 are college-age or younger. Mfume wants Bryant to double that number. Their efforts have already increased the number of college chapters from 150 to 250 in the last year.

Can he do it?

Bryant certainly knows how to work a crowd. Grew up knowing how. For years, his father, Bishop John R. Bryant, was a towering presence at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Baltimore. Jamal gave his first sermon there at the age of 19. The title: "No Pain, No Gain."

Childhood indication

But his mother, the Rev. Cecelia Williams, knew long before then that he was destined to be a leader. She remembers one incident from his childhood vividly.

"He must have been in the 3rd or 4th grade at the time," she says. "I remember he was in his room for a long time with the door closed. Then the next day, I was doing laundry and putting clothes away in his drawer and saw a lot of change. I mean, it was a lot of change. Then his sister announced, 'Jamal is a banker!' "

Jamal had decided his friends needed a banker. So he signed kids up and told them he would hold their money for safekeeping. Along with the change, there was a list detailing the name of each child and the amount of money he or she had "deposited." The only thing he hadn't thought about, his mother says, was charging interest.

"Well, I had to tell Jamal, 'No, you are not a banker.' And I got the kids' money back to them," Mrs. Bryant says.

Later, when he was a student at City College, he traveled around Baltimore giving motivational speeches to the other students. Sometimes he would cross paths with a kid from the Baltimore School for the Arts who did "positive" raps. His name was Tupac Shakur.

Shakur's family was desperately poor; Bryant's family was solidly middle class and upwardly mobile.

When his father was made AME Bishop in Liberia, Bryant lived in West Africa for a year, then returned to the United States to go to Morehouse College. But he was still a young black man in America -- and he was never allowed to forget it.

During his college years in Atlanta, he drove a 1979 Mercedes. Over and over, he'd be pulled over by the police. They'd check his license and registration and then let him go. He'd done nothing. But he was viewed with suspicion anyway. It made him angry.

It was at Morehouse that Bryant became active in the NAACP. He'd joined when he was 13 or 14 years old -- a third-generation member of the organization. But in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, he organized a group affiliated with the NAACP called the Atlanta African-American Student Association.

Now Bryant, who will receive his master's degree in divinity from Duke University next month, is bursting with plans to make the NAACP matter to his peers. Peace patrols in troubled neighborhoods. Mentoring programs that match college students with inner-city kids. More rallies this summer to seize on the sense of desolation young people feel over the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.

Can he do it?

Bryant has the clean shaved head popular with a lot of his contemporaries these days. Dressed in a light, gray suit with a red tie, he strides to the pulpit at the Love Fellowship Tabernacle Church, pauses for a brief second, then looks out over the crowd. It is approaching midnight and the young audience has been here for four hours now. They're ready to listen. And Bryant is ready to talk.

Confident speaker

His eyes are like laser beams focusing on everyone at the same time. Then he opens his mouth and the deep, booming confident voice sounds as if it should come from someone far older.

It is not about blaming anyone for whatever troubles blacks have individually or collectively, he tells them. It is about action. It is about not forgetting where you came from. It is about hanging tight and it is about letting go. It is about admitting the truth, then moving on.

"Our generation has a reason to be angry," he says. "Even in 1997." The crowd is quiet now. No singing. No talking. Just listening.

"Yes, we have arrived. But we are still being judged by the color of our skin and not the content of our character. Yes, we have made strides. Yes, you can shop in Macy's, but once you walk in, you are followed around. We have a reason to be angry," he says.

"Yes, you can get a good job and make a lot of money, but then you drive your Lexus and they pull you over as a suspicious person. You got a reason to be angry."

People look at one another and nod. They know what he means.

But the price to pay for hanging onto anger is far too high, Bryant tells them. It is holding on to that anger that is killing us, he says.

But Bryant is not here to dwell on how others may be causing that anger. Not this night. Not when so many young African-Americans are taking the lives of other young African-Americans. Not when only a dime of every dollar spent by blacks ends up back in the black community.

"Tonight, I am angry not at America. Not at the Democratic Party but at black people because we don't know how to love ourselves."

Hooked listeners

A voice out of the crowd urges him to "go 'head on!' " Although the hour is late and people are tired, they want more and they get it.

Young blacks who are fighting and sometimes killing each other to sport the latest designer apparel by Tommy Hilfiger and Nike are misguided, he says.

"We have factionalized each other with black people talking about who got a college degree and who doesn't and who rolled up here in a Lexus and who took the subway," he says.

"He's right," says a young woman sitting in the third row with friends.

It all comes back to being angry, Bryant tells them. Angry about the lack of jobs, angry about the lousy schools. And angry people will find release, most often, by taking it out on themselves or whomever is around them.

And that, he tells them, must stop.

"The first thing we have to do is stop the violence," he says.

"We must stop the violence but not just with guns, not just with knives. You have to stop the violence in your own mind. It is violence when you think you will never be anything, when you think you will never finish college, when you think you will never get your piece of the American dream. We have got to love ourselves and we have got to get involved."

Bryant leaves them with a challenge. "Now that you know about this," he asks. "What are you going to do about it?"

He is hoping they will join the NAACP, the organization that has been fighting on behalf of black people for 88 years. He is hoping they will join and infuse it with new life.

Can he do it?

At the end of the evening, people surround Bryant, wanting to know how to join the organization he represents. About 150 fill out registration cards.

For Bryant and the NAACP, it's a beginning.

Pub Date: 4/08/97

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