Civil (rights) war - The civil rights community begins the post-Coleman era sharply divided

Aug 27, 2008 at 5:06 pm

Before his unexpected death in July, the Rev. Louis Coleman had the people in his orbit believing they were each his essential sidekick. Because he was a quick decision-maker who enjoyed independence, Coleman utilized talent from whoever was at arm’s length. And he gave the impression that he needed you above everyone else. 

In his absence, the fractures at the organization he founded may cripple a generation of activists suspicious of one another in the post-Coleman era. 

After a contentious board meeting Aug. 15, the Justice Resource Center shuffled out Mattie Jones as its interim director, ousting the longtime activist last week in favor of the Rev. James Tennyson, pastor of New Golden Star Missionary Baptist Church in south Louisville. 

Around the same time, the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression — a key ally of the Justice Resource Center — lost a $3,000 seed grant after infighting turned off the Metro agency that was to award it. 

Jones says her ouster has no legal merit. 

“I wrote no letter of resignation,” she says.

At a press conference last week, held symbolically in front of the decaying house that was the old Justice Resource Center headquarters at 16th & Maple streets, friends and allies joined Jones, who told assembled media that the people at the Aug. 15 meeting — who she says were not members — were disruptive and angrily challenged her ability to lead. 

“I refused to sit through that disruption,” she says. She learned later in the week that Tennyson had been named in her place. 

J.T. Woods, co-host of the organization’s radio program, “Views & News” on WLOU 1350-AM, says he was at the board meeting and that Jones was the one being disruptive. 

“Everyone was trying to be nice to Mattie, trying to calm her down, but she just got arrogant,” he says. According to Woods, no one forced Jones out, but she voluntarily left the meeting after an argument over changing the by-laws, saying she resigned. When a second meeting was called Aug. 18, Jones’ absence was taken as her official relinquishing of the seat, and the group decided to nominate Tennyson. 

Jones told media that she’s prepared to make a legal challenge to fight her ouster.

“It’s very hurtful to me because of the burning desire to continue the work of Rev. Coleman,” Jones says. Meanwhile, Jones and company say they will start a new organization to ignite a “new movement” as the fight over the Justice Resource Center heats up. 

On Monday, Tennyson held a press conference at the current Justice Resource Center headquarters, at 28th & Hill streets, to discuss the new direction. He announced four board members: J.T. Woods, Rueben Pulliam, Shelby Lanier and the Rev. Milton Seymour. Asked about a legal challenge from Jones, Tennyson says he’s not worried, that the organization’s paperwork verifying its rightful leadership is in order. 

“We have done everything legally and filed our papers with the state,” Tennyson says. “We’re on solid ground.”

Earlier this month, the Metro Center for Health Equity withdrew its intent to award a $3,000 grant to the Kentucky Alliance for its Emerging Leaders program, citing “internal conflict” between the organization and that program’s coordinator, Gracie Lewis. 

“It was my decision,” Lisa Tobe, director of the Center for Health Equity, says. She says Nneka Mosley, a health education specialist at the center who was assigned the mini-grant, began receiving conflicting phone calls from both the Alliance and Lewis, who were trying to obtain the funds separately, in late July. 

Tobe says her decision had nothing to do with LEO Weekly’s coverage of Lewis’ recent suspension from the Alliance, after she left a threatening message on a fellow activist’s answering machine. The message was in response to an altercation between Lewis and the activist’s son. 

“We had two different sets of folks claiming to own the program,” she says. “I don’t think it is our responsibility to mediate what’s going on within organizations.” 

Tobe says the decision is regretful but that it has not damaged their relationship with the group. “We consider the Kentucky Alliance a partner,” she says. 

K.A. Owens, co-chairman of the Alliance, declined to comment for this story. 

The Jones-Tennyson split has opened a nasty spat between the two factions vying for control of the city’s most-renowned civil rights group in the post-Coleman environment. Just as the death of any great figure reveals splinters among former lieutenants, sidekicks and pupils, the total secession of one faction of the Justice Resource Center sheds light on how Coleman ran the organization. 

“When he’d want something on the radio, he’d give me a call,” Woods says. He tells LEO Weekly that Coleman delegated tasks among a group of argumentative people who barely spoke or didn’t know one another that well. Those who claim to be the rightful executors of Coleman’s legacy were most certainly in the dark about the full web of his associates and allies. Poor bookkeeping of memberships and board trustees only widens the split. 

Critics dismayed with LEO Weekly’s coverage of these divisions and recent incidents in the civil rights community have characterized these disputes as internal matters that are not newsworthy. Jones, for instance, threatened to use the Justice Resource Center to protest the newspaper in the wake of two recent stories detailing conflicts within the civil rights community; but when she was on the receiving end of critical treatment by her peers, she called a press conference, inviting all local media (and, incidentally, attempting to ban LEO Weekly before relenting). The irony didn’t seem to occur to Jones or members of her entourage. 

Now, most have fallen in line with familiar cliques, fostering a situation where internal conflicts are producing external consequences.