Attorney Mark Bryant has the job of making Freedom Inc. a relevant political force once again.

Former councilman promises a new Freedom Inc. 

Attorney Mark Bryant has the job of making Freedom Inc. a relevant political force once again.

Mark Bryant is an attorney at one of the most prestigious and conservative law firms in Kansas City. So how did he become the new leader of the eastside political club that earned a reputation for fighting for social and economic change?

Bryant answers that question, like most, in a reserved and soft-spoken manner. His response comes like words off a pamphlet, as if he has memorized a script written by a team of Freedom Inc. members. When asked how he felt about being elected president, he says he is "overwhelmed with the possibilities." Ask why he ran and Bryant says it's because he believes in the organization's mission of empowering African-Americans in the political process. The answers come across as generic for a man who claims he is going to shake things up.

As president, Bryant is filling the vacancy left by state Sen. Mary Grooves Bland. She resigned after serving for two and a half years. "I felt it was in the best interest of Freedom to have someone who is here all of the time," says Bland, who has held various elected positions for 20 years. "You cannot be on the pulse of what's going on when you are not around." Bland says she will continue to be actively involved with the organization.

Freedom Inc.'s board elected Bryant, a Kansas City councilman from 1983 to 1991, over Charles Hazley, who also served as a councilman from 1971 to 1991. Bryant received 35 votes to Hazley's 23. "Bryant has a high level of integrity and is respected not only in the African-American community but the community as a whole," says state Rep. Terry Riley, a Freedom executive board member who voted for Bryant. "Freedom has stumbled lately, and Mark has the capabilities and talent to revamp the organization."

But Hazley wasn't overshadowed that much. "Either candidate was capable of leading the organization," says Kansas City, Mo., councilman and Freedom member Troy Nash. "Both candidates have strong credentials."

While both men may be good leaders, Hazley and Bryant have opposing organizational ideologies. Forty-nine-year-old Bryant recognizes the importance of recruiting young members and getting them active in the political process. Hazley represents the organization's old guard, a group that, some charge, has stunted Freedom's growth by playing a game of politics and business as usual. Bryant admits that Freedom could be more accessible to the community and wants to erase the organization's perceived closed-door policy and ball-hog mentality.

"There is a perception that Freedom is a closed club, and I would like to dispel that perception," says Bryant. "For many years a small group of individuals have been consistently vigilant in maintaining and operating this organization. I think we have reached a point in our history where our constituents would welcome seeing someone else assume leadership."

One of Bryant's first challenges will be to restore political clout to the organization. The group's power has declined in recent years; its sway inside and outside the African-American community has diminished. "Freedom has been turning out 10,000 to 11,000 voters (on average per election)," says Bryant. "I want to get those numbers up to 20,000 to 25,000 voters, which would give the organization greater leverage when it seeks to protect the interest of inner-city residents."

Freedom provides transportation to the polls and circulates literature on the candidates the group's members have decided to support, but that has been the extent of their efforts in the community recently. According to Freedom secretary Velda Cook, membership numbers are not available.

Candidates backed by Freedom used to be assured a majority of the city's African-American vote, which usually propelled candidates into office. But in the past few elections, Freedom's candidates have suffered major setbacks with losses that have eroded the political group's endorsement power.

Some candidates have chosen not to seek Freedom's endorsement. When Janice Ellis, an African-American woman, ran for mayor last year, a debate ensued over which candidate the organization would endorse. Ellis publicly stated that receiving the nomination was not critical to her success. She eventually received Freedom's nomination and finished third in the primary.

Former city councilman George Blackwood received Freedom's mayoral endorsement and was soundly beaten by Kay Waldo Barnes, who never courted Freedom for backing. And Riley won an important state representative race without the organization's endorsement. He defeated Gail McCain-Beatty, a longtime Freedom insider who received the endorsement for the 43rd District seat.

At its height during the late '70s and early '80s, Freedom helped many African-Americans get their first taste of politics. Ambitious fledgling politicians Emanuel Cleaver, Alan Wheat, Phil Curls Jr., and Mary Grooves Bland all benefited from the organization's grassroots and street-level tactics in getting African-Americans involved in the political process. Freedom was largely responsible for grooming and propelling former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver's political career. The highlight of the organization was his victory as the city's first African-American mayor, in 1991.

The organization has struggled to galvanize the black community since it lost its star member, Cleaver, to a temporary retirement from politics because of term limits. With Cleaver out of office, a new powerhouse figure has yet to emerge for the organization to ride. But Freedom's political strength has been in question for some time. Even during its zenith, Freedom could not get Bruce R. Watkins elected as the city's first African-American mayor in 1979. Watkins, a noted civil rights activist and founding member of Freedom, lost by a wide margin to Richard Berkley, although Freedom flexed every political muscle in its body during Watkins' campaign.

A bigger challenge for Bryant than reclaiming political clout will be cleaning up Freedom's image and regaining the community's trust. In the past five years, several Freedom members have found themselves before judges. Hazley was convicted in 1988 for failure to file his federal income taxes. D. Jeanne Robinson was found guilty of one felony count of mail fraud in 1996. She resigned from her city council seat in September 1996 and was sentenced to one year and six months in prison in 1997. Former Freedom president James Tindall was convicted of tax evasion and resigned his Jackson County legislative seat in 1999. Vernon Thompson pleaded guilty on two counts of mail fraud on Feb. 29. He has not been sentenced on the two separate charges but has resigned his state representative seat.

Founded in 1962 by Leon Jordan and Watkins, the nonprofit, nonpartisan political interest group intended to mobilize and register voters. In its infancy during the '60s, Freedom had a reputation for shaking up the system, busting up white-controlled political machines in the black community and fighting for public accommodations. Now the organization is viewed as a machine run by leaders of questionable character who are out only to fatten their own wallets and bask in the glow of the spotlight.

"Freedom has not done anything for anyone to my knowledge in the last 30 years in this community with the exception of those who operate the organization," says Sonny Gibson, who founded a rival political organization, the Independent Democratic Association. "If you look at the principals who have been able to occupy public office as a result of the Freedom machine, they have been members of a very select parochial group."

Several Freedom members view Bryant as fresh blood in Freedom's old veins. Although Bryant has been a member of Freedom for 30 years, he claims to be loaded with new ideas and the marketing savvy to re-energize the organization. "We need to revise the bylaws, develop a long-term plan for financial independence, regain the trust of the community, and re-establish ourselves as an effective voice at all levels of government," says Bryant.

But there is concern by several individuals outside of the organization that Bryant may not exactly be a fresh supply of blood. They see his election as president as a strategic part of Freedom's attempt to align itself with the status quo.

Bryant is a healthcare lawyer for Polsinelli White Vardeman & Shalton, ranked by the Kansas City Business Journal as the sixth-largest private law firm in Kansas City. The high-profile law firm lists its major clients as KU Med Center, Sprint (campus), Health Net, and the International Speedway. The firm is located in a sleek, attractive building that overlooks the Country Club Plaza -- a far cry from Freedom's headquarters, which are located in barbecue mogul Ollie Gates' strip mall development on hard-hit 12th Street.

Because of Bryant's position as a lawyer at the conservative firm, his appointment is viewed by some eastside residents as a clear signal that the organization is pushing toward a mainstream conservative political agenda. Bryant disputes this accusation. "There is a clear-cut separation between my job as a lawyer for the firm and my duties as the president of Freedom," he says. "My law firm will not exert any pressure on me to influence Freedom, and Freedom does not automatically benefit from my position at the firm."

Bryant, who grew up in Kansas City, got his start in law as a Jackson County assistant public defender. He received his undergraduate education at Central Missouri State in Warrensburg and attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School. The father of four served two fairly noncontroversial terms as a city councilman.

One of Bryant's most significant accomplishments as a councilman was pushing for settlement of the lawsuit that had delayed construction of the Bruce R. Watkins roadway for more than 25 years. Bryant also played a major role in the development of the initial stages of the Cleaver Plan, which brought millions in development dollars for Brush Creek at the Plaza and farther east. Despite those successes, Bryant says he has no plans of running for public office again.

Freedom remains a child of the civil rights movement, yet to move into the 21st century. The practice of sit-in-style political tactics and guilt trips does not work in an age of high-dollar lobbyists, multimillion-dollar campaigns, and the Internet. The organization's biggest problem is its difficulty in connecting with African-Americans under 40. The organization had a chance to reach out to young voters but turned its back on young, fast-rising star Riley during the 31-year-old's campaign for the state representative seat. "Some of Freedom's political power has been stagnated due to not integrating the younger generation into the process," says Riley.

"Like any organization you have to constantly infuse new blood, new energy, new vitality," says Nash. "That was not always the case with Freedom. You have to strike a balance between the wisdom that exists and the commitment to look toward the future. You need the best of both worlds in order to be successful, and I'm confident that Bryant can infuse new blood into the organization."

Bryant plans to increase voter participation and attract young African-Americans into Freedom's fold -- a big challenge. His strategy is to enlist the help of church and civic organizations. "You have to adopt a long-term plan and have people in those age categories participate in a meaningful way on the board of directors. You have to integrate them into your ongoing activities, such as voter registration, election day campaigning, and as members of various committees," he says. To draw younger members, Bryant says, Freedom will set up voter registration tables at R&B and rap concerts, which attract younger audiences. In comparison, the organization's past marketing efforts have been sorely out-of-date.

"If the organization is going to be relevant in the 21st century, then Bryant must do some new, different, and exciting things," says councilman and Freedom member Kelvin Simmons. "The methodology of the organization must change."

Catching Freedom up with the rest of the modern world is Bryant's main goal. He has immediate plans to build a Web site. Freedom also plans to reinstate its junior program. The program has not been active in more than 10 years and was primarily composed of Freedom members' children. Bryant also says the political group plans an educational outreach component, but he did not explain details about the program. Freedom's new approach depends upon how much money the organization can raise. Currently the organization is solvent, but its financial future concerns Bryant.

Freedom faces a litany of problems that local African-American politicians say desperately need to be solved. And because such needs exist, Freedom needs to survive. "Freedom is relevant, but it will only be as relevant as its members. Therein lies the potential power of the organization," says Simmons. "It's always been an organization based on its members and their ability to galvanize the vote and to elect people from within the community."

"A lot of what's wrong with Freedom is wrong with a lot of black institutions across America," says Lloyd Daniel, assistant director of Missouri's Department of Economic Development. "If you go city to city, town to town, and state to state, their institutions are dealing with similar problems. In some places it's worse. In St. Louis there is no coalition of any elected officials. Every black who runs for office runs on their own. They say they wish they had a Freedom."

Freedom leaders feel the pressure from the eastside community. The organization represents a part of Kansas City that has not shared in the country's economic boom, an area where jobs and education continue to be main issues. "Freedom is the primary African-American vehicle that engages in electoral politics. If Freedom went away today, you would still need to set up something like it," says Daniel. "Hopefully, it would be more grassroots oriented, more courageous, more bold, and more visionary."

"The political astuteness of the people who vote have a serious lack of education as to the rationale for being a voter. Freedom has been able to capitalize on voters' lack of knowledge," says Gibson. "Freedom has a come-to-Jesus feeling, and so during elections, Freedom has the machine to reach these people with their ball and chain logo on the ballot, which appeals to the voters emotionally, not rationally."

Unless Freedom can make a rebound, the group may be in danger of being abandoned by a new generation of African-Americans who are not easily swayed by old-school sentiment. "It's all about candidates and issues, and that is what Freedom has to focus on," says Simmons.

Several new organizations have begun their ascent to power and are influencing voters in the city's central core. The Black United Front was founded in 1975, The New Democracy Movement was started by Daniel in 1991, The Black National Congress was established in 1989, and Coalition for Economic Justice was created last year by comic book publisher and local activist Alonzo Washington. Gibson's Independent Democratic Association was founded in August 1999, and smaller, neighborhood-based groups have made strides in defining a new political agenda for the city's black population. Bryant faces a big challenge: to not let Freedom become a footnote in Kansas City's history.

Contact Shawn Edwards at 816-218-6778 or shawn.edwards@pitch.com.

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