Friday, July 20, 2001

'I didn't expect anything overnight'

Boycott leader continues struggle across decades

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Rev. James Jones saw his two choices as a boycott or business as usual. And the latter, he decided, was not an option.

        He perceived a troubling escalation of force by the Cincinnati police department in the African-American community. Talk brought little more than increasing frustration.

        He led the call for a summer boycott of Cincinnati. The year was 1979. He again is taking that approach this summer.

[photo] The Rev. James Jones is among the leaders of the economic boycott of Cincinnati.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        “It was a success, to me, because we got concessions,” the Rev. Mr. Jones recalled in an interview with The Enquirer. “But I didn't expect anything overnight or nothing.”

        In his office at Greater New Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Carthage, he flicked the growing ash of his Salem cigarette and talked about his leadership in a coalition that is now calling for an international boycott of Cincinnati. Two groups the coalition claimed were active supporters have denied that, but others remain steadfastly in the minister's corner.

        His hair is gray now. The times have changed.

        The man has not.

        “This is serious,” he said in an impassioned voice, defending last weekend's decision by the Combined Coalition for Justice an Racial Equality, of which he is chairman. “This isn't bellyaching or whining, this is serious.

        Supporters say the first vice president of the Baptist Ministers Conference is an unpolished but sincere spokesman whose work to improve African-Americans' lives in Cincinnati is in its fifth decade.

        “Some black people call him brusque, unpolished,” said his longtime friend, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. “But the truth isn't supposed to be polished.”

        But the Rev. Mr. Jones has drawn the ire of whites and blacks alike, for which he makes no apology. Others say he's at times unfocused and unrealistic, criticizing City Council members for failing to deliver what is beyond their control.

        “We need this, we need this, and if we don't give it to him, we're not representing our community,” Cincinnati Vice Mayor Minette Cooper said.

        She said he calls for council to fire the police chief, having been told they have no such authority.

        “It's frustrating,” she said. “He makes it real hard for us.”

        But she quickly adds, “I think J.W. brings a lot of messages that represent the community. I don't think they're going to jump off a bridge with him, but they'll follow him to that bridge and then decide.”

        That's all he asks.

        Joined in the interview by a fellow boycott supporter, the Rev. Stephen Scott of First Recovery Christian Fellowship, he said the boycott's primary focus is reneged promises by city officials, and the fair distribution of public money into African-American neighborhoods.

        It's not, he said, about one police officer shooting one 19-year-old unarmed African-American on one April night. Or even blame for the riots that followed.

        Those are just symptoms, he said.

        He thinks criticism for his stance will continue, and insists that powerful business insiders run Cincinnati in their own interests. That the media bosses, as power-insiders, slant coveragein their favor. Not reporters so much, but editors.

        The most important color in the equation, he said, is neither black nor white. Thus, the boycott.

        It's green. As in money.

        “When I hear the media hitting that path about (a boycott's impact on) black-owned businesses, I know,” he said. “We have not specifically targeted, as reported, black events. But I don't want to cop out on that. But here's what black people don't understand: How can we sanction Taste (of Cincinnati), which is viewed as white, and not the ones viewed as black.”

        “Love him or hate him,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, a former City Council member, “he's never been afraid to speak his mind.”

        The Rev. Mr. Jones tilted a Pepsi to his mouth as an air conditioner, duct-taped to the window frame, barely stirred the muggy afternoon air in his office.

        “You've got to have credibility,” he said of the criticism he's drawn, especially from other African-Americans. “I can't just go after the white man. Let's not play the same separate standard that the city has been doing on like, say, the curfew.”

        On his door, a purple sticker reads “Believe in Peace.” Behind him, a dark-complexioned figure of Jesus stands near two small American flags.

        His bookshelves reflect a man well-versed in dealing with the media and church members. The books Beyond Media and Handbook of Film Production share space with Sociology: Principles, Jesus the Messiah, and Slavery and Freedom.

        Atop that bookcase is a 1982 certificate from the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission for his participation in a Police Community Relations Workshop.

        That's one of the results of his call for a boycott three years earlier, when the target was, among other things, the police shift in service weapons to the .357 Magnum.

        He lost that battle, but won concessions on shotgun placement in squad cars and improvements in officer training.

        “We will let the man know this community will not stand for the kind of injustice that exists in river city. Cincinnati is not the heaven some have believed it's been up to this point.”

        He spoke those words on Aug. 12, 1979, on the steps of the Hamilton County Courthouse.

        A generation has passed. The times have changed. The message has not.

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