Kid Sharpton

Jarret Maupin is the reverend Al's handpicked protégé. Is Phoenix City Hall ready?

Maupin Sr., who collects disability pay as an Army veteran and works odd jobs at night, secured some affordable office space on Washington Street to serve as Sharpton's local campaign headquarters during his failed bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. (Sharpton won 8 percent of the Democratic primary vote in his home state of New York, but scored less than 1 percent on the Arizona ballot and fewer than 300,000 votes nationwide -- disappointing, compared to Jesse Jackson's capture of 7 million votes in 1988.)

Since then, the father-and-son team has been readying the offices for Sharpton's return to Phoenix, tentatively scheduled for late February, "when we'll have our grand opening," says the elder Jarrett, "and everyone will know the National Action Network is here."

In the meantime, Maupin says the office already has been getting "up to 9 or 10 calls a day" (at 888-462-0936), mostly from minorities citing incidences of police or workplace discrimination they feel the NAACP or the EEOC is too bogged down to take on. The NAN works with a handful of lawyers, most of whom take the cases on a pro bono basis, and provides a "court patrol," where a representative mainly sits in on a court hearing to make sure none of the plaintiff's civil rights are violated. The Maupins believe the organization's mere presence at the trials -- at which Sharpton's name is often invoked -- is often enough to keep judges wary of enacting rulings that may be construed as racially motivated.

Maupin with Sharpton in Phoenix, October 2003: "Some people call me his 'Mini Me.'"
Maupin with Sharpton in Phoenix, October 2003: "Some people call me his 'Mini Me.'"
Opal Ellis, Maupin's grandmother, staged the city's first civil rights sit-in.
Jeff Newton
Opal Ellis, Maupin's grandmother, staged the city's first civil rights sit-in.

"We hear from the black woman who goes to pay her bill at APS [Arizona Public Service] and hears, 'You people always pay your bills late,'" says Maupin Sr. "Or the Hispanic man who takes his family into the Cheesecake Factory and is told his table will be ready soon -- and then waits while a white party the same size gets seated before them."

Even among the black community, the value of the NAN is debated. Reverend Oscar Tillman, who's served as president of the Phoenix NAACP on and off since 1987, says he has no problem with another organization taking up the civil rights fight. "Any agency that steps out here and tries to help people is gonna get my 100 percent backing," he says.

Still, Tillman, an easily approachable man who answers his own phone and says he follows up each complaint personally, can't understand why anyone with a civil rights issue would take it to a small, little-known setup like the National Action Network instead of the NAACP, which has a local 24-member board and has handled some 600 documented cases since July alone.

"If we're not doing something or handling things in a way that would force people to go to another agency, I'd like to know why they're not coming to us," he says. "Because we don't even require people to be a member of NAACP for us to handle your case." (The NAN, on the other hand, charges a $20 yearly membership fee.)

The answer, says the NAN's 18-year-old secretary Tatum Turner, a fellow St. Mary's High senior whom Jarrett persuaded to take a paid position with the organization, may simply be Jarrett himself.

"A lot of the times, we don't even need to get a lawyer involved," says Turner. "Believe it or not, most of the time Jarrett is able to just sit down with the businesses or schools or whatever, talk to the administrators, and they actually see the light. I know it sounds hard to believe, but it's true."

Jarrett Maupin II inherited his fire for fighting the good fight from his grandmother, Opal Ellis, who led Phoenix's first civil rights sit-ins in the 1940s and was instrumental in persuading then-mayor Terry Goddard to declare an MLK holiday in 1984 -- pushing for it again in 1987 after newly elected governor Evan Mecham famously rescinded the state holiday.

Still lovely and quick-witted today at 75, Ellis remembers Jarrett Jr. as always having an outgoing personality and an exceptionally sharp mind -- although she says that mind was not always focused on the plights of minority people.

"When he was little, he was very interested in fish and birds," she says with a laugh. "But he would learn a lot about them. One time in school, the teacher said, 'Class, can you tell me what kind of bird can't fly?'" The teacher, Ellis says, was looking for a "No" so that he could deliver the punch line "a jailbird," illustrating a lesson about staying out of trouble. "Instead, Jarrett answered, 'The emu!'" she says, laughing. "And then he went on and on about it. The teacher finally had to stop him!"

Jarrett was clearly inspired by his grandma's history of getting things accomplished through peaceful protest, however. In 1945, at a coffee shop at Central Avenue and Adams Street that was designated by a sign as "Whites Only," Ellis and five friends from the Phoenix Union Colored High School went in and sat at the counter for six Sundays in a row, until they finally were served. When she became fed up with deplorable conditions at the Matthew Henson public housing project, where she lived, she persuaded tenants to join her in a rent strike. "They wouldn't pay rent until things got fixed," says her son, Jarrett Sr.

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