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In Ravaged Baltimore, Freddie Gray’s Pastor Speaks of the Dearth of Black Male Role Models

Mark Stricherz
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Rev. Jamal A. Bryant breaks taboo by insisting black men must step up

BALTIMORE – When the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant walks into public schools here, he sees the same pattern over and over. “In a lot of schools, the only male authority figures are the security guard and the gym teacher. What you don’t see are men in schools as teachers and principals,” said Bryant, the pastor at Empowerment Temple, an African Methodist Episcopal church on the city’s west side.
 
Bryant sees a similar pattern at work in local and national politics: Black women step up but few black men do. “For the last 25 years, women have been the ones on the front lines. We have a black mayor, a female. We have a black [city] comptroller, a female. We have a black state attorney general and a black U.S. Attorney General, both females,” Bryant said, referring to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, Baltimore comptroller Joan M. Pratt, Baltimore state attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
 
Bryant, 43, is an exception to the rule he cites. He gave the eulogy at the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25 year old man who allegedly suffered a severe spinal injury and died after being in police custody for a week. Also, Bryant has cut a national profile. He was arrested in Ferguson, Missouri in protest of the death of Michael Brown last summer and counseled the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was gunned down after a fight with a Hispanic neighborhood watch commander in 2012.
 
It will be objected that the President of the United States (Barack Obama), the congressman who represents west Baltimore (Elijah Cummings), and local pastors like Bryant are black men. And Bryant volunteered that more than 100 black men stood on the streets in the heart of west Baltimore to quell the riot on the Tuesday night after looters tore through stores and demonstrators threw rocks and projectiles at police.

Yet recent events in west Baltimore support Bryant’s reluctant conclusion about the lack of “presence” of local black men. Toya Graham, a parishioner of Bryant’s church, became a national symbol of a responsible inner-city parent after she smacked her 16-year-old son repeatedly for participating in the riots and ordered him to return home.

When the community needed for order to be restored, members of the police and National Guard enforced a city-wide curfew. On May 1, the day Mosby said she would seek indictments of the six police officers implicated in the death of Gray, scores of National Guard members were on duty in a four-or-five-block radius of the burnt-out CVS store on Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th streets. Two tan armored Humvees idled on the corner of Retreat Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, while an armored National Guard member directed traffic.  Three to four dozen National Guardsmen huddled in small knots outside the CVS store, wearing protective shields and black knee guards and wielding semi-automatic rifles and three-foot long billy clubs.

Fifty years ago, a bureaucrat in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, echoed Bryant’s conclusion about the dearth of virtuous black male role models in poor-and-working class urban neighborhoods. Patrick Moynihan, then the head of the office of policy planning and research at the Labor Department, later a U.S. Senator from New York, identified the non-traditional familial role of black men as a weakness of downscale black life. “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well,” Moynihan wrote in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

The so-called Moynihan Report is remembered as a conservative document because it criticized black family structure. In truth, the 35,000-word report was neither conservative nor liberal in its diagnosis of the problem.

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