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Graves's gravity

The conscience of an irreverent reverend


There's no middle ground: You love or hate the Rev. Raymond L. Graves. And you suspect the veteran agitator and prophetic voice prefers it that way.

            During his 40 years in Rochester --- most of that time as pastor of New Bethel C.M.E. Church on Scio Street, overlooking the Inner Loop --- Graves has been a stalwart of a now dwindling group of local civil-rights pioneers.

            These days, most people outside the African-American community (the qualification is critical) probably know him from occasional media appearances. Whenever there's a charge that police have improperly used force against citizens, you can depend on him speak out.

            Graves also opens New Bethel Church so the aggrieved can speak for themselves. Indeed, in the grand tradition of the black church, New Bethel's meeting hall has been a regular venue for political protests and more news conferences than anyone can count.

            Take what happened after a gut-wrenching tragedy last summer.

            Lawrence Rogers, a young black man, died after police arrested and subdued him in a Wegmans parking lot in the city's northwest. The unarmed Rogers had been acting "erratically" and perhaps threateningly, and the incident was caught on two separate videotapes. The community was instantly divided, largely along racial and class lines. Graves invited activists and Rogers family members to New Bethel. He made an opening statement: "This is an atrocity. We have no doubt that Lawrence Rogers died of police brutality." (See City Newspaper September 11, 2002.) Later Graves attacked the results of official investigations and a medical report that exonerated the police. WOKR-TV news quoted District Attorney Howard Relin's response: "Rev. Graves has not troubled himself to learn anything about facts [in the incident]."

            There have been other such exchanges. Graves and Relin have diverged radically on the death penalty (Graves strongly opposes it). And differences between Graves and Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson have been widely reported and need no rehearsal here. But the fact remains that Graves is held in high esteem --- especially among African-Americans.

            Longtime ally Erskine Nero, who's stood beside Graves on the streets as well as at many news conferences, calls him "a beacon in the community... against injustice whenever it rears its ugly head." Says Judicial Process Commission staffer James Caldwell: "Rev. Graves is a good man; he just needs some help, some people to give him some backing." What about the arguments with Johnson, Relin, et al.? "I think he needs to face [the criticism] and take it as it comes," says Caldwell. "We all make mistakes, but we all need to be part of the solution."

            William Clark, head of the local Urban League, gives Graves a solid recommendation: "I think he plays a very important role. He brings important issues to the surface and makes people think... Citizens in Rochester seem to think things are a lot better than they really are."

Caswell County, North Carolina, today bills itself as "the treasure beneath the pines." And the very rural area just below the Virginia border is beautiful, no doubt.

            But Graves, who was born there in the town of Yanceyville during the Depression (he won't give his exact age) remembers a different botany. "It was Tobacco Road, the poorest of the farmers," he says. "My father was murdered when I was a baby, 18 months old. My mother fled north. My grandparents took us in --- a sharecropper's farm where you could have filmed Roots."

            Graves stayed on the farm until he was in his early 20s. There were clashes. "My grandfather asked me to leave because I was going to kill the 'plantation boss.'"

            Plantation? "That's what they called it."

            The young Graves missed one big fight by accident, though. "I was too young for World War II," he says. But as he describes the Old South under the rule of Jim Crow, the psychological violence stands out.

            "I traveled 80 miles a day, round trip, to high school," he says. "We demanded some new buses." There was no official response, so Graves and some fellow students scoped out the white school system's transportation facilities.

            "We 'stole' three buses... That particular incident caused the 'New Bus Movement' in the South... But they called it 'nigger kids on the loose.'"

"I could not accept the things that I saw," says Graves. One thing was a peculiar post-slavery institution: the chain gang.

            Men "would work hard all week" on the farm or at a job, "then get busted by the police [and] sent to the chain gang for one or two years at a stretch to build roads."

            He sees a parallel today in the Monroe County Sheriff's use of jail inmates to clean up litter, rake leaves, and so forth. "It sends a double message," he says. He points to another mixed message: The US Constitution (13th Amendment) prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude "except as a punishment for crime."

            Graves recalls that in 1962 --- the year before he, like his mother before him, escaped northward --- his attitude got him into hot water but prepared him for political causes to come.

            He was driving through a rural area after an NAACP meeting when two police officers pulled him over. "One cop said, 'We could kill you, throw you in a ditch.'" Graves remembers one of the officers telling the other: "'He's one of those King boys.'" Later some black activists were gunned down on the same lonely road, says Graves.

"I came here wounded, injured," says Graves. He'd been a schoolteacher for eight years in Virginia; later he would work at Rochester's Educational Opportunity Center when it was on West Main Street. And he'd become a preacher in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic black denomination.

            He recounts 46 years as a pastor in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and since 1963, here.

            Along the way he took part in numerous civil rights actions and saw "jailings, beatings, dog bites." Once during a demonstration, he says, he was struck from behind and knocked down. He literally doesn't know what hit him --- a police officer or a dog.

            Rochester was no Elysium, either, and Graves was ordered, as it were, to duty here.

            "The bishops transferred me," he says, explaining that's how things were done in the C.M.E. Church. "I was disappointed when I got here."

            One early experience set the tone.

            He attended a meeting of local black leaders at the old Manger Hotel downtown. When the mayor stopped by, Graves stayed seated. The other attendees stood up. "They [the black leaders] said, 'Why doesn't he stand up? Doesn't he know that's the mayor?' We were cut from a different mold."

            Graves says he was ambivalent about Rochester and the future, but his wife, Pauline, swayed him. (The couple has three children, two of them teachers. Ray Graves declines to say much about them: "They don't like to be published.")

            "My wife said, 'Don't leave, there may be an opportunity to do something here.'" And there was. A concerted local struggle for justice came after the 1964 urban rebellion. Soon a seminal organization was formed: FIGHT --- "Freedom, Integration, God, Hope-Today."

            "FIGHT was the only thing that motivated me to stay in Rochester," Graves says. The group, in part the legacy of Chicago-based activist Saul Alinsky's work here, sought to break down racial barriers and address black unemployment and other ills. As Lou Buttino and Mark Hare wrote in their Rochester history, The Remaking of a City, Graves took a leading role alongside FIGHT activists like the Rev. Franklin Florence --- and Graves also stoked a "loyal opposition" to FIGHT through a group called Concerned Citizens for Action.

            The oppositional role fit Graves well. He would wear the mantle again as he became the dominant force in an African-American clergy association, United Church Ministry.

"People don't know it, but United Church Ministry is one of the oldest organizations in the city," says Graves. "Back in the 1930s it was known as the 'Negro' or 'Colored Ministry,' and through the years we had some name changes." The current name was adopted in 1972.

            UCM used to have an annual convention, he says, but the group hasn't held one since focusing on what became its central campaign --- fielding complaints from citizens who believe they've been mistreated or even brutalized by police officers.

            "We have remained pretty much as a confrontational kind of organization," says Graves. "Nobody else would speak out on these issues and be consistent with it."

            But haven't things improved in recent years? Hasn't the city, under Mayor Bill Johnson, improved its civilian review board to process complaints and oversee police behavior?

            The evolution doesn't impress Graves.

            "My phone jumps off the hook all week now [with complaints]. We still have the problems of injustice in this community. We're still the watchdogs. That's why we fight --- because we do love the community."

            What kind of complaints are they? At first Graves mentions landlords who take advantage of single mothers while taking the rent check. Then he describes a recent phone call: He says a woman told him she'd hit a city police officer with a telephone and was roughed up in return, causing her to lose a pregnancy. "This was so excessive," Graves says. But the young woman, he says, hasn't gotten back in touch. (RPD spokesperson Lt. Mike Wood says an "allegation of excessive force" was filed, and a departmental "internal investigation" is underway.)

            How do other black leaders here and across the country appear from Graves's vantage point?

            "We don't have any [leaders], as far as I'm concerned," says Graves emphatically. "I'm used to strong leadership: Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy. I worked with folk like that... You can't speak out today and be on somebody's payroll tomorrow."

            But aren't some up-and-coming Rochesterians --- like County Legislator Todd Bullard and City Councilmember Wade Norwood --- doing their own sort of pathbreaking for the black community?

            "I have problems with both," says Graves. "With all the problems we've had, the police killings, these people never speak. They don't say anything to comfort the community. They only come when they're seeking a vote. If you make leadership decisions, I'm going to support you all the way... But with all the stuff last summer [e.g. the Lawrence Rogers case], I haven't heard from one city councilmember..."

            But Graves doesn't exclude his own colleagues: "I come down hard on the clergy, too."

            The activist circle within United Church Ministry has been almost exclusively male. Will that change?

            Graves says a new group is coming alongside UCM: Women United for Justice. "It grows out of the fact that African-American women [here] have no organization. Women have to address their own issues." He promises the new group will be launched very soon.

What about the legacy of King, Abernathy, and others? If the new generation of black leaders is insufficient, are people taking inspiration from the long-dead? The usual rituals aren't getting the message across, according to Graves.

            "I call 'King Day' a one-day joke," he says. "His philosophy is embedded in me; I don't see it in King Day today. All these problems we have, and [commemoration organizers] don't say anything."

            People need simply to look down West Main Street, says Graves: "It's Tombstone Territory. The decay in the inner city! We invest in things we don't need... The new [fast] ferry is the new Titanic... What about people?"

            And what about war and Washington? How do national priorities relate to the nation's Main Streets? "I hope they escalate the [anti-war] demonstrations. I don't give [Bush] a plus on anything. I don't feel like calling him 'president,' because I don't think he won it. He talks about the axis of evil, but he's perpetuating evil... Old men killing young folk, poor folk can't get a job.

            "I just don't see the threat. All they [i.e. the Iraqi military] have been doing for 12 years is shooting up in the sky with a gun... We have more weapons of destruction than anyone.

            "I don't think war is going to be able to sustain the president. The neglect of the citizenry... the collapse... That's going to dictate what the future is going to be like. Everybody's hurting from top to bottom."

            Here Graves says that change will have to come from the governors and elected officials down the chain of command, including mayors and councilmembers: "They all should be out there... Sometimes you have to demonstrate [instead of] writing letters. Right now, it's blood, blood. We don't have any moral authority. They're talking about killing people en masse. I've never seen it like this."

            Where do African-Americans fit into the picture?

            "Black America is the greatest enemy of itself. One thing we fail to do, us old civil rights guys, we don't bring the younger crowd along."

            White America needs to come on board, too, he says. "We've all got to be about justice." But the onus is on blacks.

            "We now have the 21st century 'New Toms'" promoting a racist agenda. Here he names syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams and former US Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.

            "Right now they [i.e. much of the new generation] seem to want a job and a BMW. That won't hack it."

Looking to the national scene: What about new presidential contender the Rev. Al Sharpton?

            Didn't Graves and United Church Ministry once invite the New York City-based activist here to speak at an anti-poverty demonstration? (That demo was one of the "Reality Cup" actions and educational events on urban poverty here --- designed to counter the almost airbrushed portrayals of Greater Rochester during the 1995 Ryder Cup golf match at Pittsford's Oak Hill Country Club.)

            "I'm thinking about inviting him back to preach some Sunday," says Graves, adding he and Sharpton aren't in touch regularly. "I think he can make a difference in the political process. He's totally anti-war."

            But has Sharpton neutralized himself by past encounters with the FBI --- and by his enthusiasm for the cause of Downstate teenager Tawana Brawley, whose tale of abduction and abuse eventually was discounted by a grand jury?

            "It was never really proven... I'm talking about the Brawley case," Graves contends, adding that Sharpton had a "bad legal outcome" there. Besides, he says, "a lot of these guys who are running have stuff in the closets." He mentions Gary Hart, whose first presidential bid, in 1987, was sunk by a much-publicized extra-marital affair aboard the yacht Monkey Business.

            But Graves seizes on a larger issue: that Whites feel privileged to choose the black leadership. And this feeling of entitlement has effects outside our borders, too, he maintains.

            "White America," he says, "still feels it's superior to all other whites in the world... Our arrogance, our imperial attitude has hurt us more than anything else."

            Graves is a Korean War veteran. "I was in for two years and got a medical discharge." He worked in a military hospital and saw "the war dead, the med evacs."

            "We have no plan to address violence in this community," he says.

            He and another clergyman, he says, broke up gangs in the city's southwest. "We arranged basketball games... a little banquet for them. Gave turkeys for the poor. It broke the gangs up. We went down there and talked to folks." More talking is needed, he says: hundreds of people going down the streets during the warm weather, meeting people where they live.

            But again, don't mechanisms like the city's police review process give people a chance to communicate? "I call them the 'New Crime Busters,'" says Graves. "They're getting a report and will put it in the file... They don't have a civilian review board, they've got a plantation committee... Every institution has contributed to crime in this community. The school system... the business community, the religious community have created this atmosphere where criminals can breed... regardless of what color they might be."

            Bringing some state troopers into the city for a while last fall "made people feel good for a few days," Graves says. But he believes the effort would have to be long-term for any good to come of it.

            Speaking of the long term, he comes round to Main Street again --- East and West. "I think the mayor should meet with the mall owners and get stores, satellite stores, downtown."

            Graves' own approach to the owners would be direct. He'd tell them: "If you don't [cooperate], we're going to go to Buffalo to shop." He believes the late Carl B. Stokes did something like this as Cleveland's mayor in the 1960s.

When asked about retirement, Graves becomes reflective.

            "I've been on my deathbed two or three times," he says. Once he was paralyzed temporarily, and in recent years he's had recurrent health problems.

            "Basically I'm a quiet person. I read [for pleasure]... I ain't worried about looking good. I've never seen anybody I'm afraid of. The only fear I have is, being a Christian minister, I won't accomplish what God has set me to do." He cites South American liberationist and theologian Emilio Castro as an influence, and he quotes education pioneer Horace Mann with precision: "Be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for humanity."

            Ray Graves may be a category unto himself. But his career fits into larger historical patterns. For example, there's the core civil rights argument of the 20th century: Should black Americans follow Booker T. Washington's "bootstraps" regime of self-help and business development? Or should they follow W.E.B. Du Bois's strategy, an expressly political and open struggle against, shall we say, the status Crow?

            Well-known African-American political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. --- a New School University professor who recently made appearances in Rochester and Geneva --- comments on the Washington-Du Bois controversy. In some ways, says Reed, this paradigm is obsolete. It assumed, he says, that black Americans had no political voice at all. Yet, says Reed, "in the last decade there's been an attempt to rehabilitate Washington's program." The society, he says, now listens hard to the voice of conservative, business-oriented black Americans. And there's a central fact that's often ignored, he says: "Most black people are concerned about what most people want" --- that is, jobs, homes, things for their kids.

            But Reed articulates another need: "I think the most important step that can be taken, especially in black majority cities, is to challenge the myth of an organic black community [and the] presumption on the part of policymakers that politics doesn't exist among black people."

            This insight brings us back to the local "paradigm," if it merits a formal designation. Whenever a crisis hits the streets here, the lines are drawn, with business-as-usual (more or less) on one side and a few dissidents on the other. And you can be certain which side Graves will be on.