The crowd of 200 men, most of them African-Americans, were assembled at “A Call for 1,000 Men” at Open Arms Christian Fellowship Church expecting to hear Duval School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti speak. He wasn’t in attendance,though.
Instead, they heard from outgoing Mayor Alvin Brown. Now liberated from the constraints imposed by the campaign, he delivered one of the most stunning, spellbinding, and relevant speeches of his career, sounding much more credible and real than he did in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s mayoral election.
Part of the reason was because he was among a crowd who knows him, loves him, and appreciated his significance in terms symbolic and real. Bishop John Guns introduced Mayor Brown as “the face to young black men,” saying he was “proud of him and grateful to him for breaking the mold” and not for being part of history, but part of the present.
That drew a standing ovation from dozens of community leaders, including Charles Griggs of 100 Black Men, City Councilmen-elect Sam Newby and Reggie Gaffney, and recently re-elected Councilman Reggie Brown. The applause marked what he has done, and what he will do.
During the campaign it was almost possible to forget what a dynamic speaker Alvin Brown is. His words, his themes were not his own. They seemed predigested and market tested for a general audience.
The Alvin Brown who spoke with fire and passion Thursday evening was the real Alvin Brown.
He spoke with passion and conviction about our children being “our future,” about the importance of mentoring (a theme prominent in his administration’s Mayors Mentors initiative): “If a kid has a mentor, he’s less likely to go down the wrong path.”
Brown then asked the crowd the fundamental questions:
“How many of you grew up with a single parent?”
He got a show of hands that encompassed nearly half the room.
“Mine was my mom. My pastor played that role” of surrogate father, he said.
Brown mentioned other churches, other pastors who are effectively mentoring, such as at Southpoint Community Church, where the pastor led a Hoop It Up tournament involving 1,000 boys.
“The difference is, the pastors don’t look like you or I,” he said.
Mentoring, the mayor said, is key.
“Criminals develop over a long period of time” so it’s important to reach children “when they’re young,” he said.
Then Brown delivered some real talk.
“With all of these assets we have,” he said of churches, doctors, and lawyers in the community “why is there this disconnect? How do we work together?”
“We’ve got to re-dedicate ourselves to the community,” Brown said, “and go where they live.”
Brown asserted that such is lacking, and that an “amnesia” is in place.
“We have moved out, but in poverty and despair is that young boy, walking in a war zone, going to school, where he has the only meal he gets.”
Brown has heard a lot of press conference promises, and he cautioned against empty pledges. “We can’t start something,” he said, only to have it die down a couple of weeks later.
“If this is an emergency, where is the 911 response? With all of our assets, we’re invisible to them. I know because I’ve been there. I go to neighborhoods without any press. I know,” Brown thundered.
“When you do your 9 to 5, they’re out there,” Brown said. On the streets. Without guidance. In need of a role model.
“Just ride around,” the mayor challenged. “I can take you where they hang out.”
“The reason I go without press,” he said, “is that people get cynical.”
“I keep it real for them.”
Brown made a call for “all men on deck, black, white, Asian … they go to school every day and they need to see the world as it is.”
“It’s hard work, rolling up sleeves, getting in the trenches,” Brown said, but it is necessary.
Calling on God to “take back every corner, every street, saving lives,” Mayor Brown called on those in attendance to “go forth, save sons, rebuke the Devil in Jesus’ name.”
“This is my life’s work,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s a different world; you’ve got to speak their lingo,” he said as a reminder of the world where he and I and virtually every Southern man of a certain age grew up.
“My mom had an ironing cord and a Bible,” he said to laughter from the crowd. “You know what they used back in the day.”
After the speech, Bishop Guns joked that, “We need to ordain you and get it over with, all this bootleg preaching you’re doing.”
The reality is this: Alvin Brown knows what it takes to rise from adversity. For him, Jesus and strong role models were indispensable. He knew people who didn’t get out. As he travels those streets, he sees people who dangle on the precipice, men who could escape the generational cycle of poverty and despair, or who could succumb to it.
Bishop Guns talked, at the event, of burying a young man recently who was shot at a nearby McDonald’s. Decades before, Guns said, the man’s father had been shot not too far from the same spot.
What seems like an irony to some is reality to those who walk or drive those streets. Those who assume that Alvin Brown is done because he lost an election had better think again. Being mayor of Jacksonville, for him, has been one component of a larger body of work.
He may have lost an election. but life is bigger, and realer, than that.
At the end of the event, there was a call to action.
By the dozens, men answered the call to sign up to volunteer in Jacksonville’s most violence-ravaged schools during the two weeks before the end of the school year. And judging from the reaction of the men in that room, their demonstrated resolve, there’s a shared purpose: to stop the violence, and to create a solution to the despair that leads to decisions that reinforce that despair manifold.