BY: MOSES BROWN
His audience and platform may have changed, but Bishop James M. Redfern still speaks with the passion, clarity and “Charisma” that he used to bring home his point-of-view to a wide-eyed group of high school students the first time I heard him speak.
When I was a freshman at Eau Claire High School in the early nineteen-seventies—the school formed a bi-racial committee to deal with racial conflicts that arose in the years following court-ordered school desegregation in South Carolina. The committee invited a number of speakers to campus with the intent of presenting ideas and proposals to alleviate some of the tensions between the races. One of the speakers who was invited was James M. Redfern Jr., who I’d never heard of—but after listening to his “blistering attack” on the White man and how he had assaulted Black-American’s and their culture—I immediately understood that Brother Redfern had not come with the idea of bridging the racial-divide at our school, or in our nation.
For me it was a trans-formative moment—I’d never heard a Brother who had his speaking skills, powers of persuasion & oration—I was stunned hearing these words coming from the mouth of a Black-Man. I still vividly remember how inadequate my own vocabulary was when trying to translate his message into my own words. He immediately became a role model for me as I began to seek to acquire the necessary vocabulary and verbal skills to possibly one day have the ability to captivate and spellbind an audience with his type of eloquent “poetry & prose”. Since that moment I’ve followed his life and career from afar—so you might understand how delighted I was when Brother Redfern consented to allow me to interview him for this “Story”.
James M. Redfern Jr. graduated from the internationally renowned “World Famous”– Booker T. Washington High School (his words). “I got a tremendous foundation there, for being able to travel & matriculate in the world. Prior to this I attended “Blessed” Saint Martin de Porres Catholic School (school opened September 14th, 1936 with 3 Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa & 103 students) before Black People could become “Saints”—in which I got a very strong academic foundation—but more importantly I got a grounding in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As a very young man I was an “Alter Boy”—I was president of the Catholic youth organization—I served the Nuns at 5:45 in the morning as an Alter-Boy & I mean the Mass was probably the most pivotal thing in my life”.
He grew up in Saxon Holmes—his family later moved to Washington Street—and they lived in a number of other places in the city. But that Catholic background and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the thing that set his life on track. The Nuns who served at St. Martin were, “Order of Dominicans Nuns”—and all Dominicans have taken a vow of poverty— they lived at the church in the Convent and served the community. Brother Redfern remembers, “My first impression with altruism—being able to serve the public, being caring—really comes from St. Martin de Porres. Most churches now have a “Cross” that does not have anybody on it—just a bare Cross—the Catholic Church still have the Body of Christ on the Cross. You have the bloody, beaten body—you see the present sacrifice that he made for all of our sins—so I was acutely aware, at a very early age of the willingness of a leader to have complete and total sacrifice—so all these concepts really were the underpinning of my desire to serve”.
The absolute poverty, the absolute sacrifice of being exposed to the “World Church”—The Holly Catholic Universal Church—he didn’t know how important they were until he had the occasion to look back in retrospect. “I wanted to be a Priest, I wanted to serve “God” & serve man: the two Great Commandments. This was his mentality when he left St. Martins & arrived at Booker T. Washington High School. “My first day of school in the hall-ways of this “monstrosity”—called Booker T. Washington—a man was cut with a hawk-bill knife; from his neck all the way across his chin, my first day of school—and I was standing next to him. I had come out of a school of roughly 200 students, and I went to a school of 1,600 students—boy it was a world of difference”!
When he arrived at BTW as a ninth grader; there were some senior girls who wanted to defeat a guy who was running for Parliamentarian of Student Government. They wanted to find the worst, the least, the most messed-up, the most afflicted person that they could find to run against this fellow—and beat him with the worst that there was—they wanted to beat him with less-than-nothing. So they went from homeroom to homeroom, class to class, looking for the worst example of a leader that they could find.
Mr. Redfern remembers, “I was their Guy (laughs loud)—and so all the senior girls had me for a campaign—I was just thinking that I was something, but they were looking for nothing. I had more signs, more campaigning than anyone had ever had in the history of our school—but they had one flaw—I had to give a speech on the stage before a full auditorium of my peers”. To the surprise of everyone, “I gave that speech and I turned it out—I mean I was just a little fellow—but that set the stage for the rest of my life. Being able to speak there at BTW High School—in that auditorium (that’s still there)—you may remember President John F. Kennedy’s Berlin Speech—“Ask not what your country can do for you—Ask what you can do for your country”. I integrated those things into my speech—and set myself off to a political career”.
Some other things from high school played a role in Brother Redfern’s development into a future leader—he became a member of the first class of “Upward-Bound” at the University of South Carolina. They had students come in their junior year & live on the campus of the University during the summer—and even had some ongoing classes during the winter. “I was one of the first to go into that, and I left the Valley Park (Martin Luther King Park today) area and went to the University & it just changed my life. I saw things, I experienced things on that campus—I’d grown up in scarcity, and I got to a place where there was abundance. Where there was access to the world, the Whites in the program were wonderful, kind, loving people, and I eventually graduated and went to the University on a scholarship—when I got to the University in 1967—it was a different program”!
Mr. Redfern remembers that, “In the “honey-combs” of this community shower—the boys would go over to “The Big Bird” and drink beer all night, and those white boys would come back and all of them would pee in the trash can, and they’d lean that trash can on our dormitory door. In the morning we would get up and open the door, and the urine would just flow into our rooms—they would also take shaving cream & write “nigger” on mirrors & walls—among a number of other things”. It was in the midst of this kind of treatment that Brother Redfern’s social consciousness began to awaken—Ebony Magazine had an article on Black Nationalism that he read. He got copies of the Negro Digest which he read—he read Black Rage written by psychiatrist William H. Grier & Price M. Combs; released in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During this same time frame he also read Black Skin, White Masks, written by Frenchman Frantz Fanon in 1952 and released in Europe—it was translated into English and re-released in the United States in 1967.
This was just the beginning as Brother Redfern states, “I began to read the works of Dr. Nathan Hare (often called the father of Black Studies—hired to coordinate Black studies program in the US—at San Francisco State Univ. in 1968), Vincent Harding (Black-American historian & scholar—focus on American religion & society), Floyd B. Barbour (author of The Black Power Revolt) and Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga (Professor of Africana Studies—activist & author—best known as creator of Pan-Africanism & Black-American holiday, Kwanzaa) and others involved in the Black Nationalism & Pan-Africanism Movement—and I eventually became a Cultural Nationalist & we organized movements here. My first year in college I associated myself with some people from SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Cleveland Sellers and John Battiste & others, and I became a community organizer”.
Later Brother Redfern went to California and spent some time with the Pan-Africanist, where he got to know Ron Karenga and others—“My first shootout was in Oakland –The Black Panther Party came and attacked what we call Black Nationalist; it was my first time seeing military weapons, they came with some assault rifles. The house in which we were living, they just drove by and shot up the house—and I’d never seen anything like this—I mean the bullets went through the walls. I grew up on Cowboy movies and you hide behind the walls; but man you could look at the front wall, and look through the bullet holes—just blew my mind.
But there was a major conflict between the Panthers who were Marxist-Leninist, and we were Pan-Africanist—different political ideologies—were like the early gangs, if you will—this is when the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) and the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) just started putting drugs into the community—really dividing us. But I had the opportunity to go out there and experience some of those things; I came back to Columbia and wanted to organize our community”. “I was an engineering student at the University, I made 1,400 on the College Boards (College Entrance Examination Board) on a 1,600 scale, had a scholarship—a full ride—but when I got there and hit that racism, I just couldn’t take that”.
Also at this time Brother Redfern continued his voracious reading, he discovered several other authors who played a prominent role in guiding his future endeavors. He read the works of Saul Alinsky (community-organizer & generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing) and the writing of Abraham Maslow (psychologist—best known for creating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) and he would later use many of their tactics in organizing the Columbia Community.
He grew up reading comic books at J.G. Vaughan Drug Store at the corner of Height & Taylor Street (went there every Sunday after Mass). “They had all the comic books, and I’d stand and read them all, I was a speed reader, Spiderman, Batman, Superman, all the Marvel Comics, all the DC Comics, I read all of those—I didn’t know what role they would play later in life, but all these “Super Heroes” and their methods of operation just was ingrained in my psychic”. He was also a student of Frances Marion (S.C. Revolutionary War General-considered one of the fathers of modern guerilla warfare—known as the Swamp Fox), he read the complete works of Shakespeare, (twice) two volumes his junior and senior years of high school.
This served as his cultural and political framework. He states that, “I had the Art, the Cultural Nationalism of white-supremacy and all the Western Art, Literature, the “World’s Greatest Books”—all 100 of them—Jane Eyre, The House of Seven Gables, The Iliad & The Odyssey, I read all of them—so I had a pretty firm foundation of Western Civilization. And when it came to Black-Nationalism—Ebony Magazine opened the door for me to prepare myself through reading all of those things”. Brother Redfern also secured army training—the Cooper Library at USC had training manuals for insurrectionist—along with the knowledge to put down insurrectionist. Training manuals for army movements—he studied all those things. It was said that he was one of the best bomb makers on the East Coast—was said that he ran a bomb making school—that he taught the “Weather-Men” the art of making bombs—and allegedly he was on an FBI investigation list.
He remembers that, “I just studied a lot, and the University of South Carolina turned out to be a proving ground. I started Black-Rap Newspaper at USC: Organized the Association of African-American Students, organized the Black Student Union, and organized BAD (Black Allegiance for Defense) in the community. We organized Blacks United for Action—which was a community organization. I organized the Black Correctional Officers, the Black Telephone workers; I was involved in the organization of the 1199 COL which was a Union that grew out of the Charleston Hospital Workers Strike in 1969 (predominately Black & Gullah/Geechee women seeking better working conditions & pay).
I was one of the organizers that represented Columbia in the Georgetown Steel strike”. “I did political campaigns as well. We organized the United Citizens Party, and I worked with Victoria DeLee (she helped form the United Citizens Party) from Dorchester County, when she was a candidate for Congress from South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District in 1971—I was the campaign manager for Tom Broadwater when he ran for governor of South Carolina under the banner of The United Citizens Party. Columbia’s first elected magistrate, Jesse Stevens, I managed his political campaign—I did the first sound-truck in the community when we got him elected magistrate.
I organized with Franchott Brown & Eugenia Hammonds, the “Black Bottom” rent strike—I moved into Black Bottom and lived there while I was in school—I lived next to the rent collector. I would have to come home and every day the whites at the top of the hill, behind Edna’s; there was a store there, they’d wait for me to come by and they had some “bird-shot”, and some old shotguns , and I’d have to come by that store, and man, I’d come by there running. It was a sprint with them and me—but they would shoot at me—I’d hit that ditch and go down. But we organized that, we got O.E.O. (Office of Economic Opportunity) to come in and set up a day care—we had a rent strike against “Old man” Friday, and we successfully won that—the outcome of that was Eugenia Hammonds Village—where we had the Housing Authority come in—but that was a 5 year process”.
Brother Redfern also associated with the people in SNCC; working with John Batiste and Bill Ballon—John spearheaded the “Tenants Rights Organization”. He also worked with Beatrice McKnight in organizing the Business Welfare Rights Organization—“I probably was responsible for putting together the first city-wide coalition of organizations—we met over at the Town & Tourist Hotel once every month. We’d call all the leaders in, and we had a forum where we could talk about issues—how we attack them—and they say I was the most militant—but not really, I was an in-your-face kind of guy.
That was my job, I looked at my job as being “infantry”—the Urban League, the NAACP, The Greater Columbia Community Relations Council & a number of other organizations took different roles—but I was the guy who was the Catalyst”! Another of the many battles fought by Brother Redfern—at this time there were no Black insurance agents in Columbia. He led a protest against the Insurance Building—the Travelers Insurance Agency was housed there—his tactics led to the hiring of the first Black insurance agent by the Travelers Insurance agency. He also led movements that picketed Pulliam Motors which led to them hiring their first Black car salesman. They picketed the Telephone Company—Blacks could be an operator, but you couldn’t work in the front office—their actions led to the formulation of the Black Caucus of telephone workers—which led to upward mobility of the telephone company.
They organized the Black Correctional Officers which ended up in the hiring of the first Black Warden at the correctional facility. They organized from the University campus, and throughout the city—Brother Redfern may be best remembered for organizing the largest Civil-Rights demonstration at the State Capitol at that time. Some ten thousand people marchers gathered at Valley Park (which Redfern renamed “Black-On Park”) for a two mile walk to the Capitol on a cold day in January, in 1976. “I just became a full-time organizer, political, social, and cultural—at the Freedom Day Picnic in Valley Park we may have raised 100 thousand dollars down there through the years.
That was our budget; we never were funded by the government, no White foundations, just us—we sold bumper-stickers, tee-shirts, then we had the Black-On-To-The-Bone Newspaper, which eventually became Black-News”. By this time Brother Redfern had dropped his first name and had “Officially” become Redfern Deuce—the fearless leader of “The Black-On-Nation”! “We really concentrated on developing our community—and I protested everybody and everything for a good 10 to 15 years”. They staged a protest against Sears Roebuck & Company—and the manager of Sears came with a proposal to work things out—Brother Redfern remembers that, “He said let’s work something out; you’re our customers—so he did—we got him to promise to hire some people; a month or so later he called me down.
He said “Red”, look at all these young people—and our people were down there looking like I looked—they had dreadlocks , they had cut-off football jerseys, walking on their heels—he said man this is Sear’s, I can’t hire those people. So then I began to understand class, people in Greenview they were getting the jobs. But the people who were out there protesting—man they didn’t have a shot—and I felt like I was leading them, so I had to reconsider what I’m doing—and what I am—and I cut my hair. I changed, and said I’m gonna stop begging white people for jobs, and I’m going to start creating some jobs”!
And he did, “I did start creating jobs, I was the Founder, President, & Publisher of JuJu Publishing Company, (Black-On Newspaper & Black News & several other publications)—I’ve had over a thousand people work for me in those businesses. I set up an employment agency, I had a ground maintenance company called FSGM (Fred Sanford Grand-Mama) & we did military insulation’s in eight states, had 600 employees. I’ve done residential and commercial construction—I had a group of residential and commercial companies—I’ve done consulting, political consulting, business consulting—all up & down the East-Coast; but we did begin to hire people”.
Politically Pastor Redfern Deuce now considers himself to be a political “Independent”—not beholden to any one political party. He likely now, at this point in his life adheres to the political-philosophy that we should have no permanent political enemies, and no permanent political friends—only permanent political interest. These are a few of the unusual situations that served to bring him around to his present political mindset. He states that, “I’ve been a democrat and had some problems—in the Democratic Party we would get the entire Black vote to vote for Isadore Lourie, Hyman Rubin and all those guys every year, and they would promise us one receptionist. The whole vote, and we’d get one receptionist—and I said, “Man”!
I’d gone over to Shady Lane where Don Fowler (spent most of his life in various Democratic Party roles) lived. I looked at their houses, I looked at their cars, I looked at all they were getting and how they participated in the political process on our back”. “How they got all the legal work, Bond work for the school district—I mean they got all the contractor work, all the highways and all the roadways—man!—they sold gas to the County. We had two communities, Greenview & Medowlake, and this is the best we had in the community—for where we lived. You start riding around town and looking at all these White people in places comparable to Gregg Park, Forest Acres, you go out to Shady Lane—I mean just thousands of well-to-do White neighborhoods—you start asking yourself where is all this money coming from—and why can’t we get any of it.
Then I began to see that the legislature that we were electing every year—man, they are making thousands of dollars, and we began to look at law firms—you take downtown, just take the Bankers Trust Building (Now Bank of America), who are these people in all these offices and how is it that they can make in excess of $100,000 a year. When the absolute best we have are our school teachers in Greenview—and I said “Man”, we are not getting a good deal—so I began to think about what we were asking for—we were asking for better public housing, we want better public transportation—well the rest of the Democrats are asking for Shady Lane. I’m asking for public housing, we’re asking for public transportation—they are riding around in Mercedes & Audi’s—and I said something is wrong with what we’re asking for; we’re giving too much & getting too little”.
“So that’s how the United Citizens Party was born in my mind—what if we had our own candidates—what if we didn’t vote party preference, if we began to have our lawyers handle Bonds, what if we said we want our young people to become engineers, what if we said we want to become paving companies. We do the work, we have to do all the stuff necessary—but we can’t ever take the top-dollar—man, they had the private clubs, and the best we have is the Fountain Bleau—and I said there’s an inequity there, and I said I want it all; I want to have the same rights”. At this time you had two political camps, the Democrats and Republicans. According to Brother Redfern, “The Democrats and Republicans are saying they want wealth & health—the Democrats are saying we want health and wealth for us—they want us to have public housing—they want to help us, but they don’t want us to be as good as them—I said “Man”!
I’m a Republican, I want to be able to stand on my own two feet. I want to earn with my own two hands, I don’t want you to limit me—I want to have the opportunity to become an astronaut, have an opportunity to be an engineer—I want to have the opportunity to fail—to absolutely lose everything”. In Brother Redfern’s estimation you have two kind of racist: You’ve got Democratic racist and Republican racist. “The Democratic racist, Malcolm X would say, is like a “fox”, man he’s slick as all get out—he’s giving everything, but giving you nothing—you get the public housing, you get this, you get that—but you get nothing. The Republican’s are just like a “wolf”; they say you ain’t getting nothing, you ain’t got nothing coming—you’ve got to take”!
So I got involved in that political-game—and we started the United Citizens Party. Jim Clyburn, Herbert Fielding and all the politicians—we started putting pressure on the Democratic Party—and just when it was about to break—a deal was made—Jim Clyburn, I.S. Levy Johnson, Jim Felder and Herbert Fielding were supposed to get elected. That’s when Clyburn and all them, left the United Citizens Party—and they joined John West (SC Democratic Governor) and all of them—and left John Roy Harper and the rest of us “holding-the-bag”.
But that kind of splintered our community—and a number of them have gone and become very successful and all of that—and I think some benefits have inured to our community; but we always were just a step beneath”. In the City Brother Redfern also ran for mayor: “Moses Clarkson & E.W. Cromartie were running against one another for office—I said, but guy’s—why do we have to support the White guys; the numbers are, we’ve got 40 percent of the City—if we split the White vote, and we unite, think of what could happen—so the idea of the “Black Mayor” was some 20 years before it actually happened”.