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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2004 12:33 am

Radical Rudy

Cover photo by Ginny Lee

On a damp Monday night, in a library meeting room, some 15 hardy souls gather to watch a videotape of a man named Claud Anderson giving a speech to a black congregation somewhere in Los Angeles.

On the tape, Anderson outlines a history of blacks in America that most people -- black or white -- have likely never heard. He also outlines a bleak future, warning that blacks are being systematically forced into a permanent underclass. His message promotes a concept called PowerNomics, which advises African-Americans to patronize black businesses and professionals whenever possible or risk extinction.

That's right, extinction, says Rudy Davenport, who stumbled across Anderson's philosophy while browsing at the library one day.

"It's for survival," Davenport says. "If we're going to survive as a people, this is what we're going to have to do -- especially after the last election . . .

"Others are scheming against black people. I don't think I'm being paranoid; I just think they're taking advantage of black people as they did during slavery. And I think now is the time we have to become smart enough to protect ourselves."

He says all this in a placid tenor, with a half-smile in his voice and a patient cadence, sounding like a schoolteacher explaining long division to third-graders. It's this tone, combined with his polite demeanor, his avuncular wardrobe, and his age -- 76 -- that lets people mistake Davenport for a mild-mannered community activist.

But don't let the gray hair, the orthopedic shoes, the button-down shirts, and the bifocals fool you: Rudy Davenport is a radical. This notion about boycotting white businesses is just one of his revolutionary ideas. Some others:

He believes that being black in a white society is stressful enough to drive a sane person crazy. He believes that desegregation should work out in the long run, but for now, it has hurt black people in America. He is still righteously indignant that his ancestors never received the 40 acres and a mule Abraham Lincoln promised, and he even believes that the federal government owes black folks financial reparations to the tune of $10 billion per year for the next 100 years -- plus a heartfelt apology.

And just because he's relinquishing his post as president of the Springfield branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, don't think it means he's stepping down. Davenport still has big plans and plenty to say.

"I wish people would talk to me -- and the more powerful they are, the better I would enjoy the conversation, especially with people of different opinions," he says.

"I wish people that don't agree to reparations would talk to me and have a high-level debate at a university . . .

"I wish people would talk to me about Christianity and racism and how they can go to church on Sunday and not go to a civil-rights meeting on Monday.

"I wish people would talk to me about the value of our children and how we can deny them adequate money for education and yet still wage a war 8,000 miles away at full tilt.

"I feel competent that I could hold these conversations today," Davenport says, "but I sort of feel like an old man sitting in a park talking to himself. No one's listening -- but I wish they would."

Of course, people do listen to Davenport. Over the years, he has been invited to serve on more boards and task forces than he can count. He has established such groups as People for Progress and Springfield Parents for Public Schools. He has had leadership roles in local chapters of national organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, the Urban League, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and the NAACP. Perhaps most notably, he was one of three plaintiffs in the 1980s voting-rights lawsuit that transformed Springfield city government.

In recognition of his dedication, he has won "citizen of the year"-type awards from groups ranging from Contact Ministries to the State Journal-Register (the Copley First Citizen prize). Anybody else would take the hint and just rest on his bounteous laurels. But not Davenport.

If you ask him which of his many projects has been most worthwhile, he will tell you it's the next one.

"The best one is always the one I'm going to do, the one I'm pregnant with right now, the one that's coming over the horizon that's going to make things much better for my people," he says.

This fire to fight for his people was lit by a Chicago dance hall. Davenport says he was about 19, living and working as a shoe salesman on the South Side of Chicago. He was, he says, "very shy and an introvert," lucky to live in an all-black neighborhood where he didn't have to deal with white people.

"I was quite happy in my misery in the black neighborhood, even though I was earning maybe 60 percent of what my white counterparts were earning," he says. "We had our music and we had our entertainment at the Regal Theater, the best entertainment in the world."

Then he got swept up in the Committee on Racial Equality, or CORE, and with that group he picketed the Trianon Ballroom, a whites-only palace in a black neighborhood. Although he was not arrested, he was "forcibly removed," he says, and the experience transformed him.

"When the police came to remove us, I really felt some feeling of comfort that we were able to bring this to the public's attention," Davenport says. "I couldn't seem to stand blatant racism, the way it oppressed my people, and I still can't stand it."

The picket failed, and the Trianon remained segregated. Davenport didn't really want to dance there anyway; he could go to the Savoy and hear the same bands. But something had awakened in him, Davenport says, and he became an activist. Whenever civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Paul Robeson came to Chicago, Davenport always went to hear them speak.

He moved to Springfield in 1963 to be closer to his then-mother-in-law. Davenport's first wife suffered from a mental illness requiring constant supervision, and her mother took care of her during the day while Davenport worked. Ultimately, however, they divorced. His ex-wife now lives in a nursing home in a nearby town.

"No change is possible for her mental health. It's a long-term thing and very difficult," he says.

Davenport worked as a number-cruncher for the state, a job that suited his supposedly shy personality. But he became a fixture on the local civil-rights scene, founding with William Washington a grassroots organization called People for Progress. By the early 1980s, the group decided to challenge Springfield's at-large form of government, joining with Frank McNeil as lead plaintiffs in the case. It was a role he called the "hardest work I've ever done."

McNeil, however, says the three plaintiffs never discussed the hardships.

"Rudy and Bill and I never talked about what kind of downsides we were having, because I think everybody thought they knew what to expect as a result of filing a lawsuit," he says. "We were ostracized to some degree. You could tell that you were sort of persona non grata at certain places, but you showed up anyway because that's what you did."

The success of that lawsuit earned Davenport not only a place in Springfield history but also a larger leadership role in the NAACP. By the mid-1990s, he had worked his way up through the ranks from the executive committee to president. But when a flashy young activist named Carl Madison returned to Springfield, Davenport recruited him to the organization, tutored him in the history of the NAACP, and encouraged him to run for president of the local branch.

"He kind of took me under his wing and mentored me," Madison says. "I guess it gave me what most young people don't have today, and that was the knowledge that there was a history of those that came before me, a sense that young people today are just running over the backs of those that came before us."

Madison came to admire Davenport's habit of taking his time to react to events. "You'll never get any knee-jerk reactions with him. Some people like knee-jerk reactions. But Rudy's methodical -- he takes his time and thinks things through. That may lead people to underestimate him, but when you do that, that's when you've made your mistake," Madison says.

Davenport told his protégé he hoped he would be president for a decade, and indeed, Madison was well on his way -- having finished his third two-year term and already installed in his fourth -- when his job was transferred to Ohio. That left Davenport, as first vice president, to resume the top job in January 2003.

As Davenport became president, the differences between his leadership style and Madison's became obvious. There was Davenport's judicious quality that Madison himself recognized, but there was also a certain purity to Davenport's work ethic that set him apart from Madison in the eyes of many.

"Carl had a flair for public attention. Rudy is more of a get-the-work-done guy -- don't worry about the PR, do the hard stuff," McNeil says. "Carl did some good things; I'm not going to disparage Carl. But Carl liked the spotlight. Rudy gets the job done, and if the spotlight comes, then so be it. Carl sort of sought the spotlight."

Davenport's perspective matches McNeil's. "I sort of shied away from Carl because I did not want to be engulfed in the media attention which he seemed to draw to himself and relish. I just withdrew from that," he says. "There's plenty of work to be done other than self-promotion in this business."

The work Davenport is doing now is promoting PowerNomics, the black self-help concept he stumbled over while browsing at the library. Intrigued, Davenport went online, checked out the book's author, Claud Anderson, and his nonprofit organization, Harvest Institute. Davenport liked what he read.

Major components of PowerNomics involve declaring a geographic territory for African-Americans to support (in Springfield, Davenport says, that means the East Side), and patronizing businesses owned by blacks. And if that sounds as if he's asking blacks to boycott white businesses, too bad.

"We're going to support our own," Davenport says. "We're not going to make a secret of it, we're not ashamed of it, and we're not going to apologize. Everyone else has picked the pockets of black people. The only way we can stop that is to become smart consumers."

If it sounds like resegregation, that's OK, too. Davenport calls desegregation "a mixed bag" that has hurt the black community, at least temporarily, by providing middle- and upper-class African-Americans with the ability to abandon black neighborhoods and black business districts to enjoy living in and shopping in areas that were previously off-limits.

"At one time, we could not even go into white businesses or try on clothes in white businesses, so we had our own stores. And those were able to survive and even thrive because the black people went to these stores," Davenport says.

"Of course, you always wanted to go to the white store."

Because the white man's ice is colder?

"You got it!" Davenport says. "We always admired anything European. When we got integration and were able to go into those stores, we just felt it was better."

Integration proved mostly a one-way street, with blacks flocking to white businesses, but not vice versa. Furthermore, Davenport says, white business owners soon realized that blacks had money to spend, and some started catering to these new customers.

Meanwhile, institutions that had provided blacks with a sense of racial heritage -- black schools, black nightclubs, black hotels -- disappeared.

"We had top-flight baseball teams that we could enjoy," Davenport recalls. "When I was young, people used to dress up to go to those functions. It was a Sunday after-church affair. If you've ever seen 50,000 black people in a baseball stadium having a good time, it's really something."

The benefits, on the other hand, have yet to be fully realized.

"The gain of integration, first of all, is that no longer are we confined to one community. Being unable to fully exploit your own skills is something that does really diminish your growth. You take this and multiply it by thousands of people . . . I think we suffered for that," he says. "But in the long run, I think we're going to be able to compete and compete effectively, and that will make us better."

Will it happen in his lifetime?

"I doubt it," he says. "After all, it took us 400 years to get into this fix."

But will it happen during the lifetimes of his second wife's grandchildren, whom he has adopted and is raising as his own? Davenport fervently hopes so.

"We can't stay where we are, but we can't go back. The only place to go is forward," he says.

Perhaps instead of lamenting that no one listens, Davenport should take heart in the fact that so many people seek his ear. Surely there's something to be said for being the guy everybody goes to with problems.

"It takes a lot of time. He's always getting phone calls. People are always calling him," says Azaliah Isaiah-Davenport, Rudy's 13-year-old granddaughter.

She sounds a bit peeved, but mainly because all these people take away time her grandfather/dad could spend with her.

"I wish sometimes he'd be home," she says.

Davenport's age shows in his gait and, to a lesser extent, in his energy level. And occasionally he exhibits the slightest bit of edginess, as though he has finally realized that life is too short to put up with excuses and shenanigans.

At the November NAACP meeting, he had trouble getting members to quit arguing about the annual banquet long enough to pay attention to the proposed merger of the city and county health departments, and trouble rousing a volunteer to handle the installation of new officers.

"It's a very, very moving ceremony. I know my installation stayed with me," he tells members. "In fact, it's just now wearing a little thin."

Turning to Page
NAACP Branch picks Selma native as its new leader

It had all the usual trappings of an official election -- big steel boxes, borrowed from Sangamon County, and an election judge watching members cast ballots.

But the election of new officers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Springfield branch had all the suspense of a PBS cooking show. The slate of candidates was running unopposed.

Ken Page, current second vice president and, as of last week, the president-elect, describes the selection process as -- almost literally -- getting the nod.

"It was just the evolution of it," he says. "When Mr. [Rudy] Davenport announced that he would not seek re-election, and I had worked very closely with him, well . . . you're just standing there and people look in your direction," he says.

Page, 46, works for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. He is also a member of Frontiers International and the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. A native of Selma, Ala., he moved to Springfield in 1981, shortly after graduating from college.

He initially had some second thoughts about accepting the position but ultimately decided not to worry about upsetting anyone.

"Good people embrace justice and equality," he says. "It's not like I'm going to be trying to get a free meal for anyone. It's not trying to get something that people don't deserve. It's trying to make sure that America stands for what she says she stands for."

Page has already assumed a leadership role behind the scenes, meeting with Mayor Tim Davlin and working to establish a good relationship with him.

"He will work with us to address the situation about African-American employment in city government -- at least that's my feeling in talking to him so far," Page says.

"The challenge for me as president is not only the lack of minority representation in city government but also outside of government [in private businesses]. We get all those kinds of complaints, about people fired or passed over for promotion."

Page says he also plans to focus on health-care issues, especially encouraging minorities to get preventive examinations.

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