The Good Fight

"You folks don't need another holiday. What you folks need are jobs," said then-Governor Evan Mecham to Pastor Warren Stewart.

The remark was made in 1986 during a meeting with black leaders who had gathered to persuade Mecham that Arizona needed a holiday to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. The image that statement conveyed to Pastor Stewart and his colleagues was chilling.

Apparently the governor of Arizona thought black people were lazing around the street corners of South Phoenix with too much time on their hands, singing Old Man River and waiting for Massa Mecham to find them work on his plantation.

"I have never had a white man, in front of my face, be so condescending," recalled Pastor Stewart. "I have never been so infuriated."

Well, almost never.
When sixteen-year-old Warren Stewart heard on the car radio that King had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, "I balled my fist up and crushed the dashboard of my grandfather's Studebaker Lark. I broke it with anger and hurt."

And although Pastor Stewart did not ball up his fist and crush the diminutive governor, neither would he go gently into that cold night that Mecham created when he canceled Arizona's holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. For three years, Stewart has fought ferociously to restore that which was destroyed.

From the very beginning, Pastor Warren Stewart of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix has been the most visible leader in the struggle to honor King in Arizona.

When then-Governor Bruce Babbitt decided to create the holiday, he made the announcement from Stewart's pulpit on Jefferson Street.

Although the church has become the largest black congregation in Arizona with 1,600 members, First Institutional was a church that Stewart joined with reluctance.

"When I first got a letter in New York suggesting I come to First Institutional, I threw it in the trash because I thought, `There aren't any blacks in Phoenix, Arizona.' But a friend called me and asked me to at least go preach for them.

"Phoenix was such a cultural shock from New York. My wife cried every night for six months. I asked the Lord, `What have I done to deserve this?' But I knew God wanted me to come here. That is reaffirmed every year. I get twenty offers a year to leave, but my work is not finished here."

But even men of faith suffer discouragement. Of the ongoing battle at the Arizona State Legislature to create a King holiday, the 36-year-old Stewart said, "I never thought it would be a three-year struggle."

The truth is that during his most somber moments, Stewart had considered dropping out.

"I have thoughts about passing the mantle on to someone else," said Stewart. "I have thought about resigning. We have done everything within reason. There is absolutely nothing else, within reason, that we can do."

"The King fight has been like another job," said Stewart. "It's taken me away from my pastoral duties and it's taken me away from my family duties."

The father of five boys ages eleven, nine, five, two and six weeks, Pastor Stewart has paid the price for speaking out in behalf of a King holiday.

Stewart spoke cautiously of what happened once he became associated with Dr. King.

The people next door in his white neighborhood called the police and reported him for child abuse. His own phone became a cudgel controlled by local racists.

"They call and ask, `Why do you support an adulterer, a Communist?' They call and say, `God told me to tell you to get out of town.'"

Stewart is not entirely surprised that some of the hate directed at him is religious-based. Nor is he surprised that people opposed to the King holiday, like Annetta Conant, mention God almost as often in their conversations as does the pastor.

"The problem is people whose interpretation of God sets up barriers rather than breaking down barriers," said Pastor Stewart. "God is on the side of the oppressed."

Part of Stewart's heartache over the King holiday fiasco in Arizona is that the three years of trench warfare to pass a bill have distracted from the more immediate signs of oppression within his community.

"Drugs and gangs have so much to do with the future of African-Americans that the holiday won't mean a thing if there are riots every weekend with people killing each other, overdosing, protecting turf," said Stewart.

"That's where the next war is. If I think fighting for the King holiday was tough, dealing with drug pushers and addicts, that's the real war. Your enemy there doesn't go into caucus and discuss what this smart nigger over here says. If you push a drug dealer, you can be dead on the spot."

Nonetheless, this is the next arena where Pastor Stewart hopes to have an effect.

"I will be dealing with my own people then. I certainly can't cry racism. The drug pushers and drug users are primarily African-American."

Across town from where Pastor Stewart dreams of a movement against crack, Crips, and Bloods, an exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum of compelling photographs by Pulitzer Prize winner Brian Lanker opened this weekend. Lanker once worked here in the Valley.

His two-year project, which became a book, is a collection of portraits of 75 black women entitled "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America." The pain and beauty captured by Lanker's images have moved the nation as they have traveled from coast to coast on exhibit. Describing the effort to produce this work, Lanker said, "As I think of the women I've met through this project, it strikes me how many of them grew up in strong, supportive families with the black church playing a major role . . . . In fact, all of the women in this book have dreamed of a world not only better for themselves but for generations to come, a world where character and ability matter, not color or gender. As they dreamed of that world, they acted on those dreams and they changed America."

Pastor Stewart still labors in a part of America that has not changed, that will not acknowledge a black minister who had a dream.

In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white man. At the time, Phoenix was just as legally segregated by race as any state in the Deep South.

Lanker has photographed Ms. Parks with a radiant light upon her courageous brow. She stands within a church pew. And now the portrait hangs in a museum in a state that three decades after Montgomery is still too stubborn to acknowledge that Dr. King changed America for the better.

Pastor Stewart seeks to right that imbalance.
And until he succeeds, Pastor Stewart works like a man possessed, until ten most nights. In the morning he walks his sons to school and tells them of their "triple heritage as Christians, Africans, and Americans. And I tell them it doesn't matter what color you are if you don't do your homework.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey