White preacher looks back at 40 years at a black church

Kansas City congregation that took him in 'saved me,' reverend says

Donald Bradley / McClatchy-Tribune News Service /

Published Jan 8, 2011 at 04:00AM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — His preaching days over, the Rev. Sam Mann wants to set the record straight.

Shame, the other way would make a great movie:

White boy grows up in Alabama small town during the civil rights era, his father a hard-drinking racist. The son rejects dad, marches with King and becomes a hippie preacher. At a black church in Kansas City, he spends 40 years doing good deeds for his flock.

True all. But Mann says he can’t let stand the notion that his story is what he did for others; that he was some sort of white savior.

“The black community saved me,” he said. “My own people didn’t want me. I had nowhere to go.”

By 1968, Mann had essentially been exiled by the white Methodist church around Kansas City. Took the pony-tailed, motorcycle-riding preacher all of two years to earn that distinction.

Two congregations ran him off because of his constant harping on civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Then another chance. A black church on Kansas City’s east side offered a job to a white guy from the heart of Dixie, who drawled like George Wallace, and whose father, a traveling salesman, would stay only in motels that guaranteed a “colored person” never had slept in the bed.

But it was at St. Mark Union where the young preacher found a home. For 40 years he served the church as a beloved pastor and advocate for its community. He took that Southern drawl and learned to “whoop” with the best black preachers in town.

That was the easy part, said Mann, 70, the ponytail now gray.

The biggest challenge, he said in an interview last week, was his “unacknowledged white privilege.”

“I had to give it up every day.”

A nebulous term — “unacknowledged white privilege,” but generally considered the societal and institutional benefits of being a white man in a black culture.

The Rev. Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson said Mann never played that card.

“And that’s what made him so respected in the black community,” said Thompson, who heads the Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“He just wanted to serve. I’ve been in the trenches with him. He’s a warrior and a beautiful brother.”

He was born in 1940 in Eufaula, Ala., a small town on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, about 90 miles southeast of Montgomery.

He was the oldest of three boys. His father sold clothes and his mother worked in a sock mill. His father drank, his mother, a “long-suffering, saintly woman,” took his abuse.

Mann was on the small side, but captained the high school football team.

“Ought to be a sin how much I like to hit people,” he once told a younger brother.

At age 15, Mann heard his calling and began to preach at the Methodist church in Eufaula. About that same time, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Sam Mann hardly has sat down since.

Speaking out

To him, preaching meant speaking out for social justice, which he did throughout his years at Birmingham Southern College and later at seminary school at Duke University. The civil rights movement boiled over with marches, clashes and violence that played out on the nightly news.

On a day in 1963, Mann returned home to Eufaula on break to work with youth at a local church. He made clear his outrage over Gov. George Wallace’s stand at the University of Alabama’s door to block the entry of two African-Americans.

That night his father, having heard of what his son told the Eufaula teens, came home late, drunk, roused him from sleep and accused him of speaking out in favor of mixed marriage.

“That was the beginning of the end for my father and me,” Mann said. “He was embarrassed I was his son.

“It was the end at that church, too. They never invited me back.”

Lobster covered the plate, but a scolding would be the main course that 1966 day at the Carriage Club.

Mann knew he was in trouble when the board member for St. John’s United Methodist Church invited him to lunch.

Things had turned rocky since the church had recruited him out of Duke to be an associate pastor. It was a great job for a young minister. Nice house, connections.

But the young preacher quickly irritated some in the congregation by speaking out on civil rights, fire hoses in Selma, the military-industrial complex and the U.S. escalation in Vietnam.

At the Carriage Club lunch, the church leader told Mann no more politics from the pulpit.

“Nobody but God tells me what to preach,” Mann responded.

Gone.

Next up was a Methodist church in Peculiar, Mo., which Mann thought would be better, as the congregation was more like the working-class people he’d come from.

But then came the 1968 Democrat convention in Chicago. Mann went. And when he got back he gave a talk to the Peculiar Lions Club about police brutality against the war protesters.

Gone again.

“I had preached since I was 15, and all of a sudden nobody wanted me,” Mann said. “I wept. I thought I would never preach again.”

When Dorice Ramsey worked at Head Start in Kansas City, Kan., she kept hearing about a preacher named Sam Mann and all the good things he’d done along 12th Street.

Finally, she had to see herself.

‘Never be forgotten’

“I met a man with a spirit unlike any I’d ever come across,” said Ramsey, who recently succeeded Mann as executive director of the St. Mark Children and Family Development Center.

“What he’s done here will never be forgotten. His mark is too deep. He’s touched so many people.”

Indeed, the state-of-the-art child center, completed in 2004 at a cost of more than $5 million, may be Mann’s bricks-and-mortar legacy.

But the lasting image for many will be him marching with other black preachers in protest of perceived slights toward the minority community, war, police brutality and South African apartheid.

For 40 years he worked tirelessly to feed the hungry, house the homeless, train the unskilled and help minority entrepreneurs open businesses. He helped organize the first National Urban Peace and Justice Summit to address gang violence.

He was part of a local effort to raise money to replace black churches burned in the South.

In 1993, when a jury acquitted two Los Angeles police officers in the Rodney King beating case, setting off riots across the country, Mann told The Kansas City Star he was amazed at the media frenzy.

“They overlook the daily violence inflicted on people by poverty and racism. You don’t see any special reports on that.”

Mann’s rousing oratory for years lifted congregations and audiences to their feet.

“Never dull,” said Laura Hockaday, a former writer for The Kansas City Star who now serves on the board of the St. Mark Children and Family Development Center.

“He’s never been afraid to speak out, and he’s certainly been worth getting out of bed for on Sunday morning.”