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Defiant Graves Fights "System" with Fiery FlairSixty-two years have passed now and the death of Herman Graves, sharecropper, bootlegger and emerging social activist, is as resonant in his son's mind as ever.
His death gave rise to a story, which over the years has been burnished into legend, of a passel of angry white men forcing a German Luger into the hand of a black man and giving him no choice but to pull the trigger and kill his friend.
The story of the father's death has, in turn, fueled in the son an anger so strong it has yet to be tempered. It also has yielded a great distrust, particularly of something he calls the system.
"It was the system that killed my daddy," he says.
So it was that the Rev. Raymond Lee Graves was propelled into a life of the ministry and social activism. And so perhaps it is fitting, if not at least a little symbolic, that the New Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, where he is pastor, stands just outside Rochester's Inner Loop.
For nearly three decades now, Graves has stood defiantly outside the city's downtown boundary and established power structures, hurling angry criticism at targets large and small.
He has attacked the city police department for what he describes as a pattern of harassment and discrimination against minorities. Following the Calvin Green shooting in 1988, he dismissed as a sham the grand jury investigation and state probe that cleared the officer who killed Green, an unarmed black man. The officer was white, and many charged the killing was racially motivated.
Once, he called for the razing of the Hyatt hotel, saying its skeleton was unsafe. Another time he took to the airwaves to warn young black men not to wear watches for fear the glint of the metal would be mistaken by police officers for a weapon.
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"I'm the type of person who will work with the system as long as the system works," says Graves. "But you can't trust the system at certain levels anymore. And when I can't trust the system, I go outside it. I've got no problem stepping outside the system."
There is, however, a second thread running through all this: In the minds of his detractors--and there are many--his charges are regarded with such skepticism that some people find it almost impossible to take him seriously.
To their way of thinking, Graves is a man utterly unconcerned with fairness or facts, with little interest in correcting the wrongs he rails against.
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Credibility: It is an issue that has dogged Graves since the mid-1960s, when as a seminarian he came to Rochester hell-bent on stirring up people, on delivering change. Whether they wanted it or not, or whether they knew they wanted it, he promised a change. Which then begs the question: Did he deliver?
That is something else altogether.
In the meantime, he strained credibility to the breaking point. When he launched a petition drive a few years ago to oust Relin from office, he promised thousands of names. But where were they? When United Church Ministry did its own investigation of the Green shooting, it was so marred by errors that it received short shrift in the media and was ignored by officials. He regularly threatens to strangle Mayor Thomas P. Ryan Jr. at the polls, but never delivers.
"One of his problems is that he doesn't always follow through on promises he makes," says City Councilman F. Glenn King. "That really hurts his credibility."
Says Graves: "I don't think I have a credibility problem. I know exactly what I'm talking about."
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Graves taps into a vein of black discontent so deep that its very existence makes people uncomfortable. Consequently, criticism rarely sticks to him. It merely confirms the view of his supporters that the white media and criminal justice system are out to get him.
To these people, what is important is that he does not kowtow to the major, to the district attorney, to anybody.
"Most people don't have the guts to speak to the mayor or district attorney with the directness he does," says the Rev. John S. Walker, deputy director of the Big Brother/Big Sister program and one of Graves's closest allies. "A lot of people aren't used to that, and that makes them uncomfortable."
Graves has come to be regarded as a prophetic maverick at best; at worst, a nut. Some community leaders, including many in the black community, flatly refuse to discuss him, saying they fear that such outspokenness does not come without a cost.
Following the Green shooting, for instances, dozens of local clergymen agreed to meed, but only after it was agreed the gathering would be secret, says the Rev. Willie Harvey, pastor of Peace Baptist Church and president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"There are people out there who, if they knew I was associated with him, they would attack the center," says the Rev. Frederick Douglass Jefferson Jr., executive director of the Martin Luther King Center. "I know he's very controversial, but I think he's right."
So controversial, in fact, that his supporters contend he has a sort of silent constituency that encompasses middle-class blacks, as well as many whites, who agree that the city's power structure and the media have shortchanged Graves but who do not want to embrace him publicly. It is a curious phenomenon, virtually impossible to verify, and a matter of considerable doubt.
What is clear is that his church has a congregation of more than 1,000 people. The are drawn from across the county, not just from the Scio Street neighborhood where it is situated.
"The church is right with him on these matters in the Rochester community," says James Peterson, an officer at New Bethel and a member of the choir. "But his influence really goes outside the church, much farther into the entire community."
Graves is highly regarded by others, too. Last month, the Black Business and Professional Community of Rochester, an umbrella group of about two dozen organizations, paid tribute to him. At the Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta, he was recently give the most prestigious alumni award for contributions to the ministry and to the school.
Finally, he is considered a forward-thinking minister by officials in his national church, and for years has been counted upon to mind its social conscience.
"Some of us do nothing but preach," says Bishop Oree Broomfield of Washington, D.C., to whom Graves reports. "But I think that he has a calling to do more than that, to make a difference in the community. It's a combination we don't see often enough. We depend a lot on him to lead us forward."
But from the pulpit he is restrained, at least where activism is concerned. He prefers to stick to theological topics, using them to articulate family matters and other social concerns.
Instead, his forum is the news conference. From a meeting room just off his sanctuary, Graves has championed allegations of police brutality and delivered charges of municipal corruption. He has organized community marches against drugs and he has shared the woes of a forlorn woman who could not pay to retrieve her son's body from a downstate prison, where he died after swallowing two ink pens.
In the privacy of the newsroom, these tales frequently provoke journalists to agonize.
Do we cover him? It is a question he relishes, knowing that because he has shed the preacher's "three-piece-suit-and-Cadillac" image to assume a role as a lightning rod for controversy, he makes people uneasy. It is no easier a decision when he offers little evidence to support his charges.
"It's easier to cover a Bill Johnson, who'll talk smooth without offending anyone," says Graves of the Urban League of Rochester president, who is also a member of New Bethel and a distant relative by marriage.
"With us dealing with some dirty business, you have to get down and spade the dirt. The media does not always want to do that."
Following His Calling
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Graves was 18 months old when his father, who was 32, was slain. After the shooting, his mother, Bertha, fled their home in Caswell County, N.C., to New York City; he, a brother and two sisters were left in the care of his grandfather, who was a preacher and farmer, and his grandmother.
"Daddy was challenging black men to stop working for a dollar a day," says Graves. Some white people in town "wanted my father to close his mouth. If you didn't, they called you an uppity nigger and they killed you. That's exactly what happened to him."
Graves heard other stories, too, but did not believe a single one. The story of his father, martyred as he tried to improve the lives of his neighbors, was burned in his mind. He never let it go, using it as fuel as he chased his destiny.
But there are wrinkles in the story, all of which point to a conclusion that Herman Graves was shot in the chest after he was caught with Harrison's wife.
For starters, court records show Harrison committed the crime on his own. Harrison confessed to the shooting and pleaded what then was called the Unwritten Law, a reference to the circumstances under which the shooting occurred. He was sentenced to two to three years at hard labor.
The headline in the Sept. 19, 1929, edition of the Caswell Messenger, the weekly newspaper that served the county, reads: "Negro Man Is Killed By Jealous Husband."
Finally, a half-dozen people close to Harrison, including his closest surviving relatives and friends, say he discussed the shooting on several occasions. His story never veered from the version contained in court documents and state archives, they recall.
"He had been away and he came in and caught them," says Janice Jones, his step-granddaughter, who is a nurse now living in New Jersey. "He was so mad that he shot the man. It was something he did that always ate at him."
Graves says he once confronted Harrison, and that Harrison told him he had been put up to the killing. This, coupled with his mother's tales of his father's radicalism, of bucking the white power structure in Caswell County, assured him of the rightness of his story. He describes contradictory explanations as "cover-ups," further evidence of a conspiracy.
"I went and did my own digging and am satisfied with what I found," Graves says. "For the (court) records, they put in what they wanted to make themselves look good."
Growing up in the rural South, amid poverty, hopelessness, hatred and the Jim Crow laws, left a deep impression on Graves. He cringed at the thought of suffering indignities at the hands of whites, and he says he once ran for a shotgun when he became angry.
As a teenager, though, he became more constructive. He protested the lack of good school buses for black students, and he adopted other causes in Caswell County as well.
It was, he says, almost as if he sought to model his life after his father's.
But there was another side to him. For years he was, in his own words, "the No. 1 hood in the county." The sheriff would chase him across the border into the town of Danville, Va., where he would break up parties, start fights and booze until the authorities there chased him home, where he continued apace. Asked why, he says he was "just hostile."
"They used to tease me that I would be killed like my daddy," he adds. "I just couldn't take it. It made me mean and angry."
It all changed one night when his brother was nearly stabbed during an argument. He went home and got his grandmother out of bed. He was determined to attend college, he told her.
"I said, 'Grandma, you don't have to worry about me any more.'"
He worked his way through Winston-Salem State University, then a mostly black teachers' college. Then he did a stint in the U.S. Air Force before going to North Carolina Central University, where he earned his master's degree in education administration. He was argumentative there, too, challenging his instructors and their long-held assumptions.
I wasn't built to hold my tongue," he says.
It is a trait he says he took from his grandmother, an elegant woman who was half-white and descended from a well-to-do family. That, he says, allowed her to challenge matters that others let be.
He returned to Danville in the late 1950s, but this time as a teacher. There, too, he worked for changes that would improve the conditions of black students.
The tale of his epiphany begins a few years on the road between Danville and the town of South Boston, some 25 miles away. Driving behind a tractor-trailer one day, he nearly struck an oncoming truck. The following day, he was driving behind another truck.
"Every time I started over (to pass), he would come over and cut me off," he recalls.
Graves ran his car into a muddy shoulder, spun out of control and fell about 35 feet. Luckily, he fell across the seat, and the steering column narrowly missed him.
He decided that night to enter the ministry.
"I thought that maybe the Lord was trying to tell me something."
Stirring Up RochesterAtlanta, home of the Interdenominational Theological Seminary, put Graves at the heart of the civil rights movement. From his kitchen window, he could see the Baptist church of the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr.'s friend and confidant.
It was a time of great change, and the year Graves spent there was a heady time. He was inspired. He turned out for marches and protests, but more importantly, he resolved to bring change wherever he went.
The next stop was Rochester. He arrived in 1963, to attend the Colgate Rochester Divinity School/Bexley Hall/Crozer Theological Seminary and become the pastor of New Bethel. It was a sleepy congregation then, led by a quiet pastor to whom Graves's notions of social activism were nearly foreign. He wasted no time, immediately stirring up things, all the while tending to traditional pastoral duties, parishioners say.
"When I came to Rochester I wanted to cry." Graves says. "To come out of that progressive environment in Atlanta to a place where everyone was so afraid was just too much. But I saw there was a need."
Even then he was indifferent to conventional wisdom, holding unswervingly to his own precepts about what was best for him. Then, as now, Graves made his points with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball, refusing to be agitated or deterred by criticism.
"He brought a little bit of the radicalism from Atlanta," says Mary Walker, a church trustee. "He talked about what was happening in the world, and he let us known that we should be ready for change. . . . We lost some members, but we gained some, too."
At Colgate, he was a mature, serious seminarian who immersed himself in his studies. He also became involved with a group of black students who organized the famed 1969 lock-in protest, and joined the burgeoning activist FIGHT organization in the city. Those years, which he seems to view as a series of wistful recollections, are sorely missed. The fire that burned within the black community is to a large degree gone, he says, and many of the black leaders who pushed the community to action also have faded.
"Ray has been one of the few voices in this community that has been really consistent over the years," says Minister Franklin Florence, pastor of the Central Church of Christ and one of Graves's closest friends. "While others have given up or gone on to something else, he has stuck with it."
Graves, now 63, confesses a deed concern for future black leadership in Rochester. In his mind, ministers here have been cowed into remaining silent. While they may say otherwise, few are truly willing to accept all the burdens of social activism.
"They're afraid they won't get their United Way money, or they'll lose their job or something will happen to them to pay them back for what they say," Graves says. "But if someone else doesn't start to speak up soon we'll lose everything we think we've gained."
Dubious Accomplishments?But the question remains: What has he done?
"I don't see any direct results," says former Public Safety Commissioner Paul A. Bringewatt, who is not executive director of the Monroe County Water Authority. "Indirectly, maybe he's made people more aware of their own actions."
Indeed, Graves's critics are quick to note that nothing stands to which he can claim credit for building.
Civilian review of the police department, at least as Graves sees it, seems a remote possibility. Exerting an influence on local elections is far-fetched. Participating in local government is equally unlikely.
Even the United Church Ministry, the umbrella group of predominantly black churches that once could quickly mobilize area ministers, seems to be faltering. While UCM counts more than 75 churches on its rolls, in actuality it can count on perhaps a dozen or so to be at all active, says the Rev. Walker, pastor of Christian Friendship Baptist Church in Henrietta.
What's more, these critics say that by concentrating solely on attacking the police, he ignores issues of greater concern in the black community: crime, teen pregnancy, education and poverty.
The failures, they say, rest solely with Graves.
"It seems to be that if you want to change the system, there has to be a level of participation," says Mayor Ryan.
In 1989, for instance, Ryan offered Graves a seat on an advisory committee to evaluate the police department's citizen-complaint process. Graves responded by asking the mayor to double the size of the committee and demanding to appoint as many members as the major.
"I'm the guy that gets criticized when things go wrong," says Ryan. "I put together this committee. Why shouldn't I make the appointments?"
Graves's supporters, however, contend his influence in Rochester has been much more subtle. By simply refusing to allow the issue of police-community relations to die, he has had a profound effect here.
"I think it would be wrong to say that because he hasn't reached all of his goals, he hasn't done anything." says the Rev. Kenneth L. Dean, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Rochester. "In a way, a leader's role -- like Raymond's -- is to speak with a moral voice. It's someone else's job to do something. For him, it's just being in the fight that counts."
Says the Rev. Maggie Boyd, who studied with Graves and now is the pastor of the Graves Institutional CME, the church on the city's west side named after Graves: "In the whole movement for social justice, some of us have to be bulldozers and some have to be engineers. One person can't do it all. He is a bulldozer in that he is a conscious-raiser. Someone else will have to do the reconstruction. I don't think everyone understands that."
Others maintain that Graves, after nearly 30 years, is finally being proved right. They point to the federal grand jury investigation of possible civil rights violations by vice squad officers as evidence that Graves had it right all along.
"I think people are saying now, 'Maybe he's not off his rocker. Maybe there is something to what he's been talking about,'" says Urban League's Johnson. "With what's happening in Los Angeles and with the investigation here, people are seeing he's been on the right track all along."
Graves and his colleagues are the first to admit that sometimes he stretches things. But to assail his credibility, they say, is to fail to understand a key point, a tradition shared by many black church leaders: That he uses hyperbole to make his points and incite his listeners to action. So when Graves calls someone a murdered, say, as he did Ryan and Relin a few years ago, he does not necessarily mean it.
"Sometimes," Graves says sheepishly, "I will create a situation, something I don't believe in myself, to get folks moving, to get them stirred up. I'll make a statement to get the dialogue going and later say what I think and what I really know is true."
Whose credibility is it anyhow? Graves long ago stopped caring whether he was seen as credible by people inside the Inner Loop, figuring they did not want to listen to his message no matter how he phrased it.
"It really doesn't matter what people say about me. That doesn't matter as long as I'm convinced what I'm doing and what I'm saying is right," Graves says.
"I'm one of the most misunderstood persons."
Source: Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), 9 June 1991, Sunday, Pages 1 and 6.