Dallas’ oldest black church continues a legacy of political influence | Commentary

“When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to come to Dallas, the White Citizens Council didn’t want him here,” the Rev. Jones said. Anglo business leaders scrambled to persuade a group of black ministers to oppose King’s 1963 visit. But James refused to stand down. 

The men who were New Hope pastors were forces to be reckoned with. Whites did not sit on any governing boards or own the deed to church property, and could not pressure black members on how they should live, work and vote.

When James stepped down in 1985, Jones hardly understood at the time that he was being groomed by gospel legends to eventually take up the mantle.

Cesar Clark of Good Street Baptist and a colleague at St. John Missionary Baptist Church called to offer their congratulations and support. Around the same time, there was confusion about continued affiliation with the National Baptist Convention.

“Dr. Clark said, ‘Remember young Pastor Jones, New Hope is the mother church and has always been a prominent member of the National Baptist Convention.'” Jones says those words had a profound effect.

Life for Jones was chock full of familial duties and government, as his career progressed with the city of Garland. Jones and wife Peggy have two sons and 10 grandchildren. In his dual-profession as minister and manager, Jones balanced with a skilled precision that won him many fans. But after 29 years with the city, Jones decided to retire in 2005.

In his final role as assistant city manager, Jones had worked for a slew of mayors and city managers who earned his respect and admiration, but never his envy for the strenuous task of campaigning for an elected position.

No one could predict that the storm in 2005 would bring Jones back to city government: Hurricane Katrina.

“In 2005, after Katrina hit, I got a phone call saying they [the city] needed to talk to me,” Jones paused. Garland had been designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a distribution center to help Katrina evacuees in need of food and housing.

Jones went back as a consultant, with the understanding he would return to his retirement. So when the mayor’s term ended, Jones encouraged brilliant, qualified women and talented minorities to run. But the script got flipped.

Some of the same people Jones was encouraging to run wondered why he couldn’t take his own advice. Jones finally heard himself say out loud, “One day, I might just run for office.”

What was ironic about his first election, was that African Americans did not turn out to vote, en masse, because many didn’t believe a black man could win. So, after a few days of a joke-retirement, a brutal storm, and, after pushing a few others to campaign for it, Dr. Ronald E. Jones won in 2005, becoming the first black mayor elected in Garland.

Jones, now 72, finally retired from Garland in 2013. He says most people do not realize how much Garland has changed, what the city has achieved by working together across ethnic and racial lines.

“We were the first city to ever have a multiracial board,” Jones explained. “Garland has a large Muslim population, a large Buddhist Temple and a large Ethiopian Christian community, very diverse.”

I asked Jones how in the world, as a minister and a mayor, he reconciles the import of separation between church and state.

“There is no separation between God and government,” Jones responded, “but church and state means something totally different.” He said it is possible to have your positions without forgetting who you are. He believes the church still has a tremendously significant role in helping America out of its current crises.

But to go forward, Jones said, we can learn from looking back at our history.

At black churches, the attainment of political power was often discussed, and argued about, right after the “amen” in opening prayers. The church and the community it served were inseparable, Jones explained. In earlier times, the church was a perfect place to hold secret political meetings without suspicion.

“The black church turned MLK into a worldwide figure,” Jones said, “a man of letters, an academic, very articulate.” People forget that King wanted to be a minister, above everything else. Because he was pastor of a church, King was chosen for much more.

Jones says he hopes young people seeking an outlet for their activism will consider peaceful paths to Christ and success. “As I tell my congregation, the country is going down a slippery slope fast. I’ve seen people expressing hatred in such a vitriolic manner while wearing their Democrat and Republican badges, larger than their Christian badges.”

Joyce King is a writer in North Texas and the author of several books. Twitter: @writerjoyceking

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