News: 'Continuous Pressure'

Lynch says the struggle is far from over

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Jymi Bolden

The Rev. Damon Lynch III asks where Billy Graham's followers are on a day-to-day basis.

The Rev. Damon Lynch III is easily the most controversial person in Cincinnati. That distinction owes in part to his insistence on directly saying what he sees.

The pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church and president of the Black United Front, Lynch is the son, the grandson and the nephew of Baptist ministers. But he doesn't easily fit into preconceived categories, either in the church or in the civil rights movement. He quotes Malcolm X as readily as he does Martin Luther King Jr. and isn't hesitant to criticize fellow pastors.

CityBeat recently interviewed Lynch.

CityBeat: Are you a radical?

Damon Lynch III: I would consider myself a radical. I don't see that as a pejorative term. Jesus Christ was a radical.

Gandhi was a radical. Dr. King was a radical. Sometimes I probably chastise myself for not being radical enough, because it's radicals who shake the tree for change.

Cincinnati needs radical change. I think our polite efforts at change are going to fail. All our work of commissions and blue-ribbon panels and the ordinary things we do in this city aren't enough to bring about radical change and a shift in power.

It takes the agitators and the tree-shakers to upset the status quo. It's going to take continuous pressure to bring about a shift of power in who makes the decisions that affect people's lives.

Gandhi and King were both able to rally the masses and they used the same tactics we're using today — protests, boycotts and a nonviolent approach, which is what I adhere to. They used tactics of direct action and ultimately they both found a measure of success. I find it interesting that both were non-elected officials. You can lead the people and capture the hearts and passion and pain of people without being elected.

CB: On the night of the verdict in Officer Stephen Roach's trial, you didn't talk only about that issue. You started out by talking about "the oppression of the crack pipe" and "the oppression of the 40-oz. beer." I was surprised that you started there and then worked your way into the subject of racial oppression.

Lynch: Certainly there's multiple oppressions that the African-American family faces in America. The reality, though, is most of it stems from institutional racism. Racism becomes internalized, and African Americans internalize what people say and feel about them. They begin to call themselves the N word and act out behaviors that are detrimental to the entire community.

One of the things Malcolm said is the greatest sin that the white man put on the black man is making us hate ourselves. We began to see our hair as inferior, to see ourselves as ugly. So many psychological changes that African Americans have been put through!

CB: Some people describe you as a "separatist." I've heard you talk about the need to develop black banks and support black businesses. You've said white people can help, but ultimately African Americans have to fight for themselves. Do you consider yourself a separatist?

Lynch: America is a white, Euro-centric nation with Euro-centric values. We've got a group of people over here who are Afro-centric but forced to accept an educational system that doesn't speak to who they are.

We have a public school system in Cincinnati that is 70 percent African-American, but we don't have an educational system yet that is Afro-centric. If 70 percent of our consumers are African-American, maybe learning about the French Revolution isn't so important anymore. Maybe it's time for the 30 percent white kids to sit through an Afro-centric education, the way we had to sit through a Euro-centric education.

It's going to take the African-American community to educate their own. The public school system isn't going to do it. They're stuck. That system was set up at a different time for a different child.

We've got to educate our own children. We've got black churches on every corner. We've got the capacity to teach our kids. That's going to determine our future as a people — how we educate and build up our kids. Those are things we used to do. After slavery, black people built schools. It's not like we haven't done it before and can't do it.

What you also fight is white paternalism. When we talk about building healthy, strong black communities like the Cubans have in Miami and Asians have all across the country — if black people were to say, "Let's build Blacktown," white people would say, "You are separatists and militants. Why do you have to have your own town?" The idea is, "Don't we treat you all well? Why do you have to have your own school system? What more do you want?"

Black people have to get to the point where they say, "Because we want to. I don't give a shit what you think. We're going to do it."

CB: Do you feel any conflict between your work as a minister and your political activism?

Lynch: I don't think you can separate the two. I don't think you can be the church without activism. We're not just trying to save souls. We're trying to save lives.

CB: You asked Billy Graham to cancel his visit to Cincinnati in support of the boycott. But your father and other ministers supported Graham's visit. Has that made communication with other ministers difficult? Do you see any benefit from Graham's visit?

Lynch: His is a simple gospel message of individual salvation. I preach individual salvation, but I also preach collective work and community building. If you save somebody's soul and they die today, well, great! They're going to heaven. If you save their soul and they live another 20 years in poverty, your work's not done. I get letters and phone calls from Christians who say, "You should just be praying." I want to know, why aren't you protesting? We pray, then we picket and we file a lawsuit against racial profiling. After you pray, you've got to get up.

We didn't attend the Billy Graham Mission and we caught a lot of flak over that. They said, "Billy Graham's saving souls." Maybe he did. That's great. But Billy Graham's gone and we're still struggling with racism and injustice in Cincinnati. Billy Graham was an event. If those 60,000 devout Christians at the last day got anything out of it, they'd be down here doing something.

CB: Many young African Americans are rejecting Christianity in favor of Islam. As a Christian minister, does that worry you?

Lynch: A lot of African Americans are not embracing either Christianity or Islam, at least in this city. What I've found they embrace is people who are real, people who are concerned. They've embraced a whole new culture. They've embraced Hip Hop culture, they've embraced Rap.

Billy Graham comes to town and you get all these black churches to come together. But you can't get them to come together to march for justice in Cincinnati. We've actually had greater support from the white clergy. They're sucked into the system. These are people who think, "If I go to the right meetings, I'm in." But if you don't have any power, what's the difference?

Your power's out here. The movement in Cincinnati is a grassroots movement. It truly is from the bottom up, and most of our churches don't relate. Our churches are middle class, halfway well-to-do, well dressed.

This church is still a place people expect something to happen. In order to do that, you can't live in fear. I can't live in fear of what people in the church might think, what white people might think, what police officers might think.

CB: The big word in Cincinnati is "healing." Everybody says the city needs healing as a result of the rebellion. Could you talk about what healing means to you?

Lynch: You can't have the mayor at the Freedom Center or Billy Graham declare healing. The people living with oppression on their necks will have to decide when they've healed.

Ask anybody out on these corners if anything has changed or if it's gotten worse. I have the perspective that nothing has changed and we're headed right back to where we were, because we've got the wrong people in power and they don't know how to fix it.

Cincinnati is probably 45 percent African-American but white male dominated. I can't think what black man in Cincinnati wields any power. The one I can think of is maybe the fire chief. In a city of 45 percent African Americans, white men control the government, county and city; control the media; control the business community. These are the people the city's looking to for change, and it's not going to happen.

The least becomes the measure for how far we've gotten — "the least of my brothers." There's a woman around the corner who had a huge rat inside a box. She said, "Rev. Lynch, pick up that box." I said, "I ain't picking that up." She said, "They're so big that they're slow. You can pick them up if you want to."

When that woman proclaims the situation healed, I'll know things have changed. If you get Procter and Gamble to build a Tide packaging plant in Over-the-Rhine and hire 500 young brothers, I'll know things have changed. ©

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