Four years ago Kenneth McClain spent Saturdays slanging drugs and getting high. But today he is standing in the middle of the intersection of Natural Bridge Avenue and Grand Boulevard, passing out fliers.

It's hot — one of those triple-digit afternoons in the St. Louis summer. But when the light turns red, McClain, sweat-soaked white T-shirt pasted to his skin, springs into action, weaving between vehicles holding up two leaflets, one about "Put Down the Pistol" and the other about a green jobs training program at the MET Center.

Some drivers look straight ahead and ignore him. Others roll down their windows, and McClain says, "Here you go, brother," or "We're trying to get people to put down the pistols," or "If you know anyone trying to get a job," depending on which message he thinks will best connect with the recipient. At the bottom of the leaflets, it says: "Interested in crime reduction and job training? Join the Men Claim the Neighborhood every Saturday at 10 a.m., 6017 Natural Bridge."

"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Jennifer Silverberg
"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.
Jennifer Silverberg
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.

Ostensibly, saturating a neighborhood with fliers seems like an underwhelming effort to reach people. But the restraint is by design.

"The lion tamer doesn't tame a lion in the jungle," Clark tells his troops one Saturday. "He doesn't run up behind the tree and say, 'Roll over.' He takes the lion out of the jungle, into a controlled environment, so that the lion can receive it. We can't deliver the message to these brothers in their element. You can't talk to the brother at the base of the projects, smelling urine and the elevator that don't work and a sandbox full of glass. He's not gonna receive a message.

"But if you bring him here, sit him down, talk to him, he sees the pictures of other young brothers on the wall, he meets me, meets Mr. Bush, meets some of the other guys, now he's more receptive. I don't stand out there on Kossuth and give him a fifteen-minute lecture. I say, 'Man, if you wanna change, come up to 6017 Natural Bridge.'"

McClain came up to 6017 Natural Bridge for the same reason as many of Clark's other soldiers — a friend had attended a few of those Saturday-morning meetings and convinced him to check it out.

"I never seen so many positive black people in one room," he says. "To be a part of something positive, it's like a new kind of high."

And then there was Clark himself.

"He was really the first father figure I ever had," says McClain.

Even at the height of their drug dealing, McClain, Willingham and Robinson say that a large part of them thirsted for somebody to come in and offer a different path. The father figure who tells them straight up that they're going to get killed if they keep hustlin' and runnin' with gangs, who calls them out for missing a job interview, who challenges them to go to college and move out of their mom's house and buy a car — because a man isn't supposed to be borrowing his girlfriend's.

"The first time I came in, I was like, 'Whatever, I'll see what this is about,'" says Robinson. "Then he went up there, and he did the speech. And the dude, he's a modern-day — and I hate to compare anybody to anybody — but he's a modern-day Martin Luther King. The dude is powerful. His words really possess power. He has a lot of energy. He gives off a lot of energy. And it was just like, this dude, he's real."

They canvas neighborhoods every week, walk up to packs of shirtless young men with dreadlocks and ball caps standing on street corners and hand them fliers, because they know that there's a chance at least one of those guys is looking for a way out. And they know that once that young man sets foot in 6017 Natural Bridge on Saturday morning and hears Clark speak, he'll be passing out fliers by the afternoon, and he'll be back the next Saturday with one or two of those other guys from the street corner.

They know it because it happened to them.

"You see all these people from all these different neighborhoods, who are ex-dealers, maybe even still dealers, who are ex-dope fiends, maybe even still dope fiends, ex-alcoholics, maybe even still alcoholics," says Robinson. "They're all in the same room. For the same cause. And guess what? This is week after week after week after week. And none of them are getting paid. They're volunteering to be here. The dude has the message."


James Clark grew up in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood, just northwest of downtown St. Louis. Raised by his mother and stepfather, he was a mischievous child. His mother sent him to Catholic school, but he got into fights and was suspended multiple times. So after sixth grade, she switched him to public school, telling him, "If you're going to behave like this, you can behave like this for free."

After graduating from Business and Office High School of St. Louis in 1985, Clark enlisted in the army, where he was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado for three years.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
38 comments
Alex3redromero
Alex3redromero

oh yeah! River Front Times, should have more articles like this every monthly issue and special reports..keep up the good work RFT

Alex Romero
Alex Romero

yeah I was told by a friend to read this compelling story of change in the st.louis area and community..it was worth my time thanks...keep up the good work of community outreach..hopefully this will and should catch on like wild fire

Martha
Martha

I am a student that transfered from L.A. valley community college to Saint louis University, i know that Los angeles has its problem with crime and poverty..but i believe like Dr. Norm White that our inner city neighborhoods need resources and more job readiness initiatives for the urban enviroment and people that see no hope...keep up the good work Dr. White and Clark...P.S. I pray that this project works and grow to every city west of the Arch until it reaches the gang capitol of the world Los Angeles and then the rest of America..

Margo Elrolas
Margo Elrolas

I really thought that this was a story that is very awsome because every inner city from new york to my home town of los angeles need a neighborhood alliance built from the gound up and not the top down to rebuild the united states inner city...good job mr,clark and better family life

Donte
Donte

Good Article...Like 2Pac said "they will see me in Hell before they see in Jail..peace in the streets

Luvator
Luvator

I really love how Mr. Clark and Mr. Bush always educate and inform young men every Saturday @ the BFL "put down the pistol" meetings..towards young black men Respecting women, even if they do not respect themselves.I heard them both say "a man is never violent or aggressive with women, a man is a father to his children, a man is a role model for all children. Also a good man respects the law, and knows this does not make him weak..I really agree that with a relationship with God a man is active in the building of his block and neighborhood. He sets an example, that others follow..We must teach this everyday to our boys and girls , to help them grow to become productive men and women in our community and families.we need basic morals and good personal ethicsand not AT RISK lil kids having lil kids,,babys raising babies...Keep up the Good Work BFL Outreach...Mr Bush and Mr clark

Luvatormarys
Luvatormarys

I really love how Mr. Clark and Mr. Bush always educate and inform young men every Saturday @ the BFL "put down the pistol" meetings..towards young black men Respecting women, even if they do not respect themselves.I heard them both say "a man is never violent or aggressive with women, a man is a father to his children, a man is a role model for all children. Also a good man respects the law, and knows this does not make him weak..I really agree that with a relationship with God a man is active in the building of his block and neighborhood. He sets an example, that others follow..We must teach this everyday to our boys and girls , to help them grow to become productive men and women in our community and families.we need basic morals and good personal ethicsand not AT RISK lil kids having lil kids,,babys raising babies...Keep up the Good Work BFL Outreach...Mr Bush and Mr clark

susieque2
susieque2

Talk to your kids like this when they're young: "One of the things you own from being born in the United States is a free education. You own it, it's yours.''Now if someone stole your lunch, your books, your Ipod, you'd be pssd. You'd be mad. You'd try to get even. You'd go looking for your stuff back. When you mess up your free education you're robbing yourself, and not even blinking about it. Even those kids on the street corner selling dope have to add and subtract, multiply and divide. The ones who can't are sort of slaves to ones who can.'When you say, 'No, I'm not gonna do well in school,' you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you say, 'No, I'm not going to college' you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you're a baby raising a baby, you're giving away money for the rest of your life. When you get caught with dope or become and addict like (fill in a real person's name here) you're giving away freedom for the rest of your life.' 'You're robbing yourself, and you're not even smart enough to be mad about it."Then, go to the bars, the dope houses, the churches and tell everyone, "You can have a house for $1." because that's what the LRA sells 'em for. Home ownership is where the poor community falls down for generations. Look at 203k loans. Look at HUD's programs to invest in 'blighted' communities. There's money there and people can have work working on rehabbing houses. They can own their own homes.

Ebony
Ebony

I remember Mr. Clark from the1990's....he came to speak to us at the Juvenile Center.....he has been helping people for a long time.....

St. Louis is in trouble.....there is too much violence.....we need to stand UP!!!

Ben W
Ben W

It's awesome to read an uplifting story about St. Louis, and the work of these two men.

CityFred
CityFred

James Clark should run for Mayor.......He would get my vote!I hope the City gets behind this program....

Advent Gabriel Rall
Advent Gabriel Rall

We have ah modern Martin Luther King among us..let us not wait until this hits ah higher stage to support and help this movement grow and catch on fire in every hood in America..the writer of this RFT article Albert Samaha, did ah great job of describing the fire in this Vision of "Put down the Pistol"... also big shout out to the photo shooter Ms. Silverberg...and the BFL family peace Fam,cuz,shorty-mane

NoBS
NoBS

So James Clark claims he wants to clean up St.Louis neighborhoods? Why did he and his wife then abandon a home and leave it to foreclosure, not only ensuring its vacancy for months but also driving down property values due to the foreclosure. He could have at least attempted to sell the property instead of just becoming another deadbeat because it was more convenient for him. This is a role model and a neighborhood improver? Gimme a break.

Donte
Donte

yeah u sound like ah little grown as Dude

guest
guest

talk about missing the bigger picture

anton
anton

Nobody is perfect. Forelosing on a home does not make James Clark a deadbeat. He is still considered a great guy doing a good cause.Celebrities and athletes have foreclosed on their homes, too.To name a few, but popular ones: Michael Jackson on his Neverland was auctioned.Latrell Spreewell, Jose Canseco, Micahel Vick, as well.Good job, James Clark and Norman White!

Larryjohnson2
Larryjohnson2

NoBs, I agree that leaving a house was a bad thing to do. But, the man's car was shot up....his home was broken into, burgular alarm wire cut. His wife said, to him, "I do not feel safe". For me, I would have done the same thing......also...the house sold, and he is still active in that neighborhood.....

The young men that he works with pledged to stand guard at his home, morning, noon, and night.....he told them that would not last long. He appreciated their love and pledged support, but he moved for his family....yet, he continues to serve the neighborhood

 
St. Louis Concert Tickets
Loading...