Madison, Wis., is the land of great promise, at least according to pastor Alex Gee, who moved with his family to the capital city in the early 1970s when his mother applied and was "admitted virtually on the spot" to the University of Madison. Gee was 6 years old when he made his home in the "Berkeley of the Midwest," and has since raised his family there, and pastors a church and leads the nonprofit organization, Nehemiah.
And yet, as an African American male, Gee is reluctant to admit that Madison has fulfilled its great promise. His professional accolades did not keep police from stopping him outside of his car in his church parking lot several years ago, or allow him to vouch for himself to authorities by pointing out that the name on his license matched the one on the church sign. (Without ever presenting his ID to the authorities, his white associate pastor accomplished that for him.)
His daughter's high academic performance did not translate into a guidance counselor offering her accurate information about applying for the National Honor Society or recommending colleges appropriate for her GPA.
For African Americans outside of the middle class, Madison is one of the country's toughest places to be black, claims a new Race to Equity report.
According to Gee, blacks who have lower socioeconomic means are meant to "feel that they are outsiders and intruders" to the city. Wisconsin has the "nation's worst rate of incarceration of young African American males on a per capita basis, and Dane County [in which Madison sits] is much worse than the state average." The state "has, by some measures, the widest academic achievement gap between African American and white students in the country, and Dane County is worse than the state average."
Exposing these injustices inside the "liberal bastion" where the African American population is a mere 7 percent of its population is the focus of a column that Gee penned in December. Its headline pulled no punches: "Justified Anger: Rev. Alex Gee says Madison is failing its African American community."
"Why am I angry?" wrote Gee in his column. "I am angry because it seemingly is the best of times for many and yet the worst of times for others. How long will we tell ourselves that this isn't so?"
"We are a state known for protests and rallies against injustice, yet we have been negligent in our response to our state's academic and incarceration disparity. There has been more online and editorial chatter on the hunting of wolves in newspapers than the slow, loathsome death of many African American families in our state," he continued. "…African Americans are not genetically inferior to our white counterparts, nor are we predisposed to failure and criminal activity."
Gee's column reverberated throughout the 240,000-plus community. Published on Dec. 18, the article was The Cap Times' 11th most-read article of 2013. Nonprofit leaders and city council members phoned the community leader to offer their support and feedback. A 100-year-old former Birmingham pastor and civil rights leader informed Gee that he wished, "I was young enough to work with you."
At his sister's request, Gee set up a Facebook page to move the conversation to a digital platform.
"After a while we realized people want to do something. This isn't just an article. People want a movement. They want to be mobilized. They want to write letters, write emails, attend meetings. They want to do things," said Gee, who took "Justified Anger," the beginning of the op-ed headline, as the title for his fledlging movement.
Hoping to harness the community's enthusiasm, Gee hosted a town hall at the church were he pastors, Fountain of Life Covenant Church, earlier this month. Roughly 650 people packed into the sanctuary, filling the parking lot so drastically that the church shuttled attendees from three or four blocks away. Traffic also blocked an adjacent street.
"Our church is right on the highway, so there was an exit ramp backed up. I only see that backed up on Badger football Saturdays. And people came to a church! This is massive," he added.
As the night unfolded, Gee's amazement continued when, in the "headquarters of freedom from religion," audience members joined in singing "Because He Lives" and "Oh the Glory."
How did he get away with convincing the audience to worship God?
"We can sing to Jesus at a city gathering because 'Oh those are black people—this is cultural.' So we invited Jesus into the meeting and no one burst into flames; no one ran out," he joked.
Later that night, Gee cast his vision for the African American community in Madison, reiterating the amount of feedback he's received from leaders throughout the state, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke's office, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, the Madison Metropolitian Schools Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham's office and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the latter of whom was present on Feb. 15.
Gee also announced that a coalition of black leaders from community groups, like the Urban League, Boys & Girls Club and the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness, were working together with him to set their agenda.
"People don't come to Madison to die, they come to dream. People don't come to Madison so their kids can fail in school. People don't come to Madison so their kids can go to prison and rot in their cell. … We came for the same things as everybody else. It's because we want to dream, too," he told the standing room only crowd. "Madison, put the welcome mat back out. We can't undo history, but we better to not repeat it."
A week removed from the town hall, Gee believes that the "Church has an opportunity to shine" in modeling to the rest of secular Madison on how to fight and overcome racial injustices.
"Right now the government is at a loss. They don't know how to fix this. But the Church knows how to build bridges. The community is watching. What are we going to do be the Church?" Gee asked. "We need to start getting together. We need to start getting our churches together. We need to go out into groups and pray for community."
Some of that support will be financial, and Gee noted that, ironically, some of the nearby churches' mission board budgets are larger than that of Nehemiah, his nonprofit which supports at-risk youth.
Another component will be predominantly white congregations realizing that they, too, must be invested in community work and not leave the less resourced black community to fend for itself.
"I have churches that are wealthy and have said, 'We want to partner with you not because we feel sorry, but because this is our work, too,'" said Gee. "…It's my white brothers and sisters saying, 'This is our community.' Because for years they thought, because I'm black, this is my responsibility.'"
Indeed, Gee's vision rests on churches harnessing the power that already exists inside their congregations.
"We have people in these churches who own businesses, who are executives in businesses, who can make hiring decisions. We have teachers who can teach better history than just slavery. There's social workers who can say, 'I'm going to learn about other cultures so that I'm not making life-changing decisions about my own biases,'" he added.
In writing his op-ed, Gee admitted that he had to overcome fears that his white friends would dismiss his arguments as those of an angry black male trope. He worried that he might be "marginalized as someone who is angry" by those unclear why the college educated son of a college graduate and "a jovial-type person" would chastise the city.
Yet Gee refused to let his anxiety dissuade him from publishing his story and he has resolved that he will not allow his frustration to keep him from engaging.
"I haven't detached. I'm angry, but I'm not disconnected. ... I believe that even with all the mistakes we have made, God has not neglected us. He has not disowned us as the Bride of Christ, as his children, so I'm not going to disown my non-black brothers and sisters, but I want to wake us all up to say, 'C'mon we've got to meet together.'"
For Christians in Madison who believed that that the country's ills ended after the civil rights era and were now "just waiting for the trumpet to stand, so we can go to be with Jesus," Gee suggests that the community still has serious work on its agenda to accomplish prior to Christ's return.
"I don't think Jesus is ready to take this mess to heaven. I don't think we're ready for Jesus," Gee laughed.