As a group of about 60 men settled into their seats at Sim Scott Community Center on Monday evening, city councilman Kabir Karriem opened the meeting with a stark word portrait of the black community in Columbus — high crime rates, high unemployment, high drop-out rates, and a high percentage of children born to single teen-aged mothers. They are all symptoms of a community in crisis, Karriem grimly observed.
With that, he yielded the floor to Lowndes County Supervisor Leroy Brooks, the man who had organized the meeting.
“I’ve been fighting for 30 years,” Brooks told his audience. “I’ve got a lot of scars to go with it, too. But I have to say, at this moment, I’m as happy as all outdoors.”
It was, at first blush, a surprising disconnect between Brooks’ demeanor and the subject matter.
For some time now, those who know and work with (and against, in some cases) Brooks have noticed a perceptible change in his demeanor.
“He seems calmer,” says District 4 supervisor Jeff Smith, who has been on the board since 2007. “I don’t know, really. He’s more relaxed, I guess.”
“It’s been pretty calm for a while now,” says board president Harry Sanders, who has been Brooks’ chief adversary almost from the moment he joined the board in 2000.
“It’s about as quiet in the board room as it’s been in I don’t know how long,” says the 61-year-old Brooks, now in his 30th year on the board of supervisors.
“Mellow?” Brooks chuckles softly at the thought of the description. “Let’s just say I’m in a different state of mind now. I’m kind of at the twilight of my career and I look at things differently. I can see where some things need to happen.
“I made the analogy the other night that you can’t push and pull at the same time. You can’t use all your energy to fight and also try to move forward at the same time. So I’ve opted to use my energy to change things.”
Although there have been some notable clashes since, Sanders said he began seeing a calmer, less combative Brooks a couple of years ago.
That timeline is consistent with a dawning with a new sense of purpose that begin to emerge in 2012 as Brooks was out campaigning for his eighth term on the board of supervisors.
Everywhere he turned, it seemed to him, there were black men hanging out under trees or porches, drinking, doing nothing, contributing nothing. It seemed to Brooks, whose own work ethic was honed as a child working the fields in his home in Motley, that these men had lost their sense of purpose and pride. It was, he felt, an indictment of the black community.
“When I was growing up, my mom was fanatic about keeping the yard clean,” Brooks recalls. “So we would go out in the field and make these sage brooms and sweep the yard. Then, when I went to school that was reinforced by teachers who felt cleanliness was next to Godliness. So, you know, it was instilled in me at a very early age that, at the very least, there is no reason your yard shouldn’t be clean. It said something about you as a person. I look around now and it’s really sad. So what I want to do is focus on people changing their behavior about where they are at and how they do things. That’s how they become empowered.”
Even after the reelection campaign ended, the images of those idle men hanging out, day and night, under shade trees and front porches continued to nag Brooks.
“I couldn’t really get my arms around it, not for a long time,” he said. “But it never went away. I always felt like what I saw was telling me something about what I should be doing.
“Then, in April, we had the tornadoes and a lot of older people started calling me, started calling the mayor, the other supervisors, needing help. So I called Jan Ballard at the United Way, and asked her if there were any church groups that had organized to help. She told me not a single black church had organized a group to help with the clean-up.
“I couldn’t believe that. I couldn’t believe that something like this would happen and there wouldn’t be 10 black men ready with axes and chain saws out the next day, helping.
“That’s when I though to myself, ‘We’re better than this. We have to be better than this.'”
A new sense of clarity emerged and with it, a noticeable change in Brooks’ demeanor. It wasn’t so much that Brooks changed because of the new mission, but that the new mission changed Brooks.
“You know, no matter who sits on the board of supervisors, things are going to get done,” Brooks reflects. “Roads and bridges are going to be built. Streets are going to get paved.
“Now I see something different. For me, it’s become a matter of using my influence to go beyond the scope of what you are elected to do to try and say, if District 5 is going to be all it can be, the people who live there have to take responsibility. That’s true everywhere and maybe especially in the city of Columbus. That’s what I want to focus on.”
Toward that end, Brooks organized the “Men of Color” meeting at Sim Scott, which he calls the first step in what figures to be a long, but vital, struggle to change the trajectory of a community in crisis. He laid out six initiatives for what he hopes will be a true community-wide grass-roots effort — youth mentoring, job training, community volunteerism, fatherhood mentoring, crime prevention and spiritual enhancement.
If Monday’s meeting is any indication, Brooks’ greatest challenge may be uniting the strong personalities who attended the meeting to work toward a common goal. Brooks says the challenge can only be met through cooperation and empowering the people — a bottom-up approach that will inspire residents to make the changes in their own neighborhoods.
“The difference between being a leader and an elected official is that a leader encourages people to take responsibility for where they are,” Brooks says. “That’s what I want to do here. A lot of the younger men don’t know me, I realize. Well, people have called me a lot of things other than stupid. But I’ve seen some things a lot of these younger guys haven’t seen and gone through things they haven’t gone through. There’s value in that.”
While Sanders maintains the natural suspicion common among political adversaries, he does not question Brooks’ talents when applied toward a goal.
“He’s always been one of the smartest people on the board and the most experienced,” Sanders said. “I don’t know, maybe this is something where he feels he can be known as the great healer or something. Whatever it is, he certainly has the ability to do it. He’s a smart man.”
It almost seems as though Brooks has lost his appetite for the skirmishes that have been a staple of his long career in local politics. A higher purpose seems to have emerged.
Brooks doesn’t dismiss that idea.
“I guess you get to a certain point and you start thinking about what do you want your legacy to be, how you want people to remember Leroy Brooks,” he says. “It’s now about trying to get other people to get to where they want to be.
“I’ve had a lot of fights and a lot of people have been after me. But if somebody is after me right now, I don’t see them in my shadow, so I can work on this.
“I want to get this organization going. That’s where I’m at. It’s what I enjoy doing.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.