Longform

Hard Days for Ray

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His insurance policies canceled long ago, Fauntroy has had to find other ways to keep the doors open. But the recent burglary appears to have been the final straw dropped on an emotional and financial burden that has become too heavy to carry. SCLC national headquarters demands yearly dues but leaves its chapters to fend for themselves. Since the car-accident settlement money ran out, Fauntroy has been getting by on the salary his wife earns by teaching at a private Baptist school. Such are the sources of nonprofit funding in the black community, the activist complains. What he envisioned as a humble start to addressing that problem -- amassing black capital from a series of small businesses that were to have sprung up from the SCLC storefronts -- has not produced even enough cash to pay his and Bernie Meyers's salaries.

Fauntroy says he has the answers but no access to money. The SCLC chapter is endeavoring to start a micro-loan program to fund the hoped-for small businesses. He wants to refinance his mortgage to keep afloat a summer program for 15 to 30 neighborhood kids -- familiarizing them with computers and teaching them other usable skills -- and to expand a vitamin store in the office lobby into a health clinic. "If I had my health clinic here [the woman accused of the most recent break-in] could come in and get cleaned up from the drugs and then go next door and start a business to provide for her family," Fauntroy says. "But I can't get the financial support to help turn this tide alone."

As if on cue, he is interrupted again, this time by a phone call from a loan broker. When he hangs up, more frustration. "We are still red-lined, we are still denied our economic rights from the banks and insurance companies, from the lending institutions," he asserts. "I just finished hearing that it will cost 40 percent [interest] to get a loan here, if we get one at all."

He explains that he, like many black leaders, sees the new civil rights battle as one for economic control of the inner cities. But then the bitterness creeps back in. Miami is a special case, Fauntroy argues, because of the waves of Cuban immigrants who get easy access to jobs courtesy of the government, as well as financial backing from their fellow countrymen who have come before. Even Haitians who have had quick success in their new city have little sympathy for the social and economic isolation of the American black community, he adds; they move quickly up the economic ladder, benefitting from strong family groups and entrepreneurial skills. What these foreigners bring with them from their homeland, Fauntroy says, organizations like his must teach the local black community.

A smartly dressed teenage girl brings another interruption, her poise and self-possession momentarily dispelling the day's gloomy mood. She's one of the success stories of the summer youth program, which is run by Bernie Meyers. Ironically, when Meyers, who has been with Fauntroy since 1986, offers her assessment of her organization's current woes, she sounds a lot like the black immigrants Fauntroy has just been criticizing. She puts the blame for the SCLC's problems right outside on the corner, not at the doorstep of downtown banks. "Ray spends his whole life trying to help people who -- he doesn't like to hear me say this -- couldn't give a shit about themselves," she says, smiling brightly. "You have two groups of black people: those who become complacent and forget about what Dr. King did for them because they have moved on; and you have the ones at the bottom of the ladder, who don't care because things are so dismal they know there is no way out and they have given up, such as the people who have broken in here."

Meyers says she now cares only about the young people who come to SCLC's battered storefront every summer. "I have given up on the older people," she asserts. "Ray, right now, would agree. But let a telephone call come in from someone in trouble..."

It comes down to the realities of the Nineties bashing away at Fauntroy's civil-rights spirit of the Sixties. At age 55 he's losing steam. He says he can't blame his wife for insisting that he finally get himself a "real job," but at the same time he can't bring himself to give up on sixteen years' work.

Which explains why he is determined to reopen the thrift store this week. And which also explains why Bernie Meyers, for one, doesn't think Fauntroy will be surrendering any time soon. "I don't think even his wife can get him out," says Meyers. "He is too much into the welfare of his people.

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Donald W. Pine