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Eugene Rivers’s moment
Under fire for challenging Jesse Jackson, the street minister says the real challenge is to work with the Bushies in crafting a new, post-civil-rights agenda

BY DAN KENNEDY

The Reverend Eugene Rivers bounds into the reception area of the Ella J. Baker House, a partially restored triple-decker in Dorchester that is the home of the Azusa Christian Community. It’s shortly after 11 a.m. last Friday, and the pastor of this Pentecostal church, youth center, and social-service agency is in a good mood. “You Negroes got to slow down,” he jokes, bantering with a worker who has a bad back. Rivers rattles the door to the stairway that leads to his third-floor office. No go. “Who’s got the keys, man?” he asks no one in particular. A staff member unlocks the door, and Rivers practically races upstairs.

Though Rivers is never far from the media’s spotlight, its heat has radiated with unusual intensity during the past few months. A co-founder of the Ten Point Coalition, a group of ministers credited with helping to solve Boston’s gang problem in the 1990s, Rivers has emerged as one of the most prominent black activists willing to do business with the Bush White House. He was among a coterie of clergy who met with George W. Bush in Austin on December 20, and has been traveling back and forth to Washington as well. But his outspoken style, which for years has made him as controversial as he is respected, has led to whispers that Rivers wants to supplant the Reverend Jesse Jackson as the country’s best-known black leader — and that Rivers may even have somehow been involved in the revelation last month that Jackson, who is married, had fathered a co-worker’s child.

All of which has left Rivers perplexed, bemused, and — his upbeat demeanor on this particular morning notwithstanding — a little angry. Referring to a recent Boston Globe story in which Rivers denied having leaked word of Jackson’s troubles to the National Enquirer, he says, “The idea that I somehow implicitly had enough juice to play any role whatsoever in Jesse’s bad fortune, as was intimated by two cub reporters who had nothing to write, is flattering in some very facile way, but interesting in that they were so completely out of the loop. As Time and Newsweek made clear, this stuff was known for over two years. That somehow Rivers had the juice to be able to play any significant role in that was — I said, ‘Now, who do you guys think I am?’ I said, ‘I’m not that much of a crackhead that I would smoke my own press clips and be that hallucinogenic.’ And, although truth won’t be told, I actually do real work.”

Rivers is also fired up about a column in which the Globe’s Adrian Walker, after praising Rivers, wrote, “There may or may not be a need for a new Jesse Jackson. But there was no excuse for the way Rivers danced on his presumptive grave last week, declaring the end of the civil-rights era that began in the 1950s and implying that he represents the future.” (Rivers’s offending words, according to a report in the Globe: “There is a whole new era of black politics. Jesse represents the last major figure of a civil-rights era that began in ... Montgomery — it was a 45-year run.”) Says Rivers of Walker’s column: “He’s got to give Rivers his biannual tickle to demonstrate to the world that America’s a safer place because Rivers will be taken down a peg or two. And that’s a good thing, a good thing for America. Every two years we need Adrian Walker to be the ombudsman for the Anybody but Rivers Society.”

Rivers delivers these complaints about “Journalism for the Simple-Minded 101,” as he calls it, calmly, even humorously. Yet he, more than anyone, knows the precarious nature of what he’s doing. No, he may not be trying to replace Jesse Jackson the person. But he certainly is trying to replace the traditionally liberal agenda of affirmative action and civil rights that has dominated racial discourse for two generations. Rivers says he voted for Al Gore, and is as offended as Jackson by the possibility that black voters in Florida may have been disenfranchised in such numbers that it tipped the election to Bush.

At the same time, though, Rivers criticizes Jackson — and other traditional black leaders, such as the Reverend Al Sharpton and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus — for refusing to deal with the Bush administration, for having no back-up plan beyond protesting Gore’s defeat. “We stuck all of our political eggs in one basket, the basket got knocked off the table, and then we didn’t know how to respond,” he says. “And all we can say is, ‘I’m crying about Florida,’ while the imperatives of governance and the affairs of state move forward.”

Then, too, Rivers understands perfectly well that Bush’s presidency may represent an unusual opportunity for ideas he’s been promoting for years — a much better opportunity, in fact, than he would have had if Gore were president. On Monday, Bush announced a major initiative in faith-based social services and put University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio — an old friend and compatriot of Rivers’s — in charge of it. Rivers was on hand at the White House for the announcement. Indeed, DiIulio tipped Rivers off that something big was up last Friday, while I was interviewing him. (“It’s John D! He’s calling from the West Wing!” he said excitedly.) The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have already announced their opposition to the initiative, charging that it amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. To Rivers, though, a federal boost for faith-based social programs is a chance to extend the work he’s been doing for more than a decade.

At 50, Rivers is a slight, compactly built man with gray hair, a gray mustache and goatee, and round, slightly oversize, wire-rimmed glasses. His speech is a mixture of academic erudition (he attended classes at Yale without enrolling and dropped out of Harvard) and street panache. His large office commands a striking view of Dorchester Bay, about a mile to the east; yet it is so devoid of furnishings that his voice echoes off the walls. Wearing a bluish-purplish T-shirt that says washington d.c. and a blue blazer, he smiles readily, sometimes hunching down or leaning to one side when he’s trying to make a point, rapping his knuckles on the table in front of him for emphasis. This may not be his moment. But he certainly hopes it’s the political and intellectual moment he’s been working for.

“For the record, Jackson has been for 40 years a voice for the voiceless, a force for good and progressive politics in the United States,” Rivers says. “His personal difficulties are his personal difficulties. He, not unlike everybody else in life, has his ups and downs, and he has his personal problems. That’s his affair. Full stop.”

He pauses before plunging into an implicit critique of Jackson’s career: “I have never had any aspirations ever in my adult life to have my primary constituency be microphones. I’ve never had an interest in going from issue to issue to issue and not following through over the long term. My commitment is to cultivating a new, younger black leadership that understands that politics is not about rhetoric or merely protest. Sometimes it is protest and direct action, but those activities are simply part of a multifaceted strategy, with the end game being programs, policies, and results. And so I have no personal interest in that. There are a different set of ideas that are not embodied in one individual, but are in action across the country, in cities that can be identified and leadership that can be identified — an entirely new post-civil-rights consensus that says the language, rhetoric, ideology, and icons of the last 45 years are a spent force, and we simply have a new epoch.”

The Ten Point Coalition was born on May 14, 1992. On that day, inside the Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, lay a casket containing the body of Robert Odom, a 20-year-old who had been shot at a party. Suddenly, with mourners filing by, a young man named Jerome Brunson came running in, pursued by angry gang members. Brunson was shot. Unlike Odom, he lived. But the sheer amoral anarchy of the situation shook Boston’s clergy to its core.

Some 300 ministers got together to draft a plan of action. Most drifted away; Rivers and a few others — notably the Reverend Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain, and the Reverend Jeffrey Brown, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge — stayed. They initiated the 10-point plan of direct action from which the alliance takes its name. Rivers, Hammond, and Brown hit the streets, counseling young hoodlums and working with law enforcement. Gang leaders were locked up; gang members — some of them, anyway — turned their lives around. The murder rate declined precipitously, and without the corresponding increase in police brutality that marred a similar drop in violent crime in New York City. “We demonstrated in Boston, where the city was racially polarized 25 years ago, that you can deracialize law enforcement, and the black community can develop pragmatic and strategic partnerships with law enforcement,” Rivers says. “And it’s well known that the Boston model now functions as a national model, recognized by everybody.”

As the Ten Point Coalition’s most visible symbol, Rivers drew both praise and criticism. Rivers was from the streets, the product of a troubled childhood in Philadelphia in which he himself was forced into a gang. In Boston, he moved his young family deep into gang territory, and nearly paid a terrible price: a young drug dealer with whom he had clashed pumped several bullets into his house one night, nearly striking Rivers’s son, Malcolm. An intellectual and something of a hustler, Rivers also liked to mouth off, sparking resentment from people who should have been his allies. He was featured on the cover of Newsweek, and was the subject of long, favorable profiles in Boston magazine and the New Yorker. Rivers protested that he hadn’t sought out such accolades, but there they were.

Rivers has a gift for the well-wrought putdown, a gift that has brought him still more trouble. In the early ’90s he wrote a letter to the Boston Review in which he blasted the black intelligentsia, personified by Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates Jr., the director of Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute. Rivers said that “it is far from clear what substantive differences there are between the moral decay of the young drug dealers on the block and that of the elite intellectuals who prostitute themselves while contributing to a moral and ideological framework indispensable to the justification of inequality.” (Rivers and Gates have since reached an accommodation; last summer, the DuBois Institute donated a computer lab to Baker House.)

Later, in a lengthy essay in the Boston Review, Rivers’s rigorous advocacy of a new, church-oriented black nationalism based on self-help and self-reliance was overshadowed by his criticism of the “nationalism of fools” promoted most prominently, he charged, by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. “They are cynically anti-Semitic, mean-spirited, and simply incompetent,” Rivers wrote. “Their trains, unlike Mussolini’s, do not run on time; in fact, they do not run at all. They are all demagoguery, uniforms, bow ties, and theater.”

In 1998, Rivers was kicked off the board of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts after he criticized its then-chairwoman, Joan Wallace-Benjamin, for her protest of an offensive headline Boston magazine had slapped on an otherwise fine profile of Skip Gates: head negro in charge. By Rivers’s standards, the rhetoric was pretty mild; but board members were incensed that Rivers had chosen to disagree with their position in public, to the point of debating Wallace-Benjamin on NBC’s Today show.

The Urban League imbroglio led the Bay State Banner, a local black newspaper, to publish an editorial blasting Rivers as “a flash in the pan,” charging that many in the white media seek him out because he “is entertaining, a veritable one-man minstrel show.” More important, it led Rivers to apologize publicly, telling the Globe’s Adrian Walker, “I regret the discomfort that this controversy has produced for chairwoman Joan Wallace-Benjamin, and I again apologize to her and the board of the Urban League for the style and tone of the confrontation.”

For the most part, Rivers has cooled his rhetoric since then — witness how carefully he elides the issue of Jackson’s personal life, even while criticizing him for such things as his silence on the genocide in Rwanda and the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone during Jackson’s tenure as the Clinton administration’s special envoy for African affairs.

Locally, too, he’s turned down the heat. For instance, in 1999 Rivers was the subject of an extraordinary news conference held at the Nation of Islam’s Mosque 11, where Minister Don Muhammad blasted Rivers for taking unearned credit for the drop in crime. According to an account in the Bay State Banner, Muhammad — with former mayor Ray Flynn, Boston city councilor (and former police commissioner) Mickey Roache, and former police superintendent Bill Celester looking on — aimed a withering putdown at Rivers, saying, “We will not stand idly by and watch groups, organizations, and individuals who are earnest in their attempt to make a change for the betterment of their communities be duped by slick media pimps.”

Yet Rivers says he tries to work with Muhammad on issues of mutual interest, such as calls for an investigation into the recent killing of Ricky Bodden, who was shot in the back of the neck by an inexperienced Boston Municipal Police officer named Kyle Wilcox. Rivers was initially dismissive of the matter, telling the Globe, “This was a player with a gun, who was setting himself up for trouble. Sometimes when you play, you get hurt.” But Rivers now says he supports Muhammad’s efforts to learn more about what actually happened.

For all Eugene Rivers’s talk about a “post-civil-rights consensus,” it’s way too early to say that Jesse Jackson’s politics of civil rights and affirmative action are out and Rivers’s faith-based black nationalism is in.

David Bositis begs to differ with the notion that Jackson has somehow become irrelevant. A senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which analyzes public opinion among African-Americans, Bositis says Jackson’s favorable/unfavorable ratings among blacks are an enviable 83/9 — exceeded only by Bill Clinton’s unworldly 91/5. Granted, Bositis’s numbers are from last fall, before the revelation of Jackson’s infidelity. But Bositis is quite certain that it won’t matter. “I do not think Jesse has suffered in terms of what happened,” he says. “He did among white conservatives, but white conservatives don’t like him anyway.”

As Bositis sees it, Rivers has set himself a difficult task: negotiating with a president who, because of Florida, is immensely unpopular with African-Americans, and circumventing the traditional black leadership while doing it. Still, Bositis says it’s worth trying — as long as Rivers doesn’t allow himself to be seen as either a toady of the Bush administration or someone who’s trying to take advantage of Jackson’s difficulties. “In terms of the role he seems to be proposing, it’s a tightrope,” Bositis says. “If anything, the level of hostility between African-Americans and the Republican Party has increased. Do I worry about that? I do. For African-Americans it’s a one-party system. White people have a choice of two parties. Black people don’t.”

As Bositis’s comments suggest, even if Jackson remains popular with African-Americans, his brand of protest politics has reached something of a political and intellectual dead end. Joe Klein, who has written about Rivers’s work in the New Yorker, criticizes the traditional black leadership for spurning Bush even though “Bush ran with the most creative domestic policy of any candidate in memory. He spent more time talking about poor people in his campaign than any Democrat.” Klein may be laying it on a bit thick (it’s hard to see how a $1.6 trillion tax cut skewed toward the wealthy helps poor people), but there’s little question that Bush’s talk about “compassionate conservatism” and faith-based social services represents at least a rhetorical step up from that offered by the more troglodytic Republicans of the recent past.

By this logic there’s even an upside to Bush’s choice for attorney general, John Ashcroft, who has justifiably enraged African-Americans because of his disingenuous opposition to Ronnie White’s nomination for a federal-district-court judgeship, his stand against school desegregation, and his pro-Confederate comments to the white-supremacist magazine Southern Partisan. As a senator, Ashcroft was a leading advocate of so-called charitable choice, which would make it easier for the federal government to fund faith-based programs of the sort Rivers supports. “Ashcroft should be opposed, if one is against Ashcroft, on the merits of his policy positions. It should not be a Shaka Zulu festival, where you racialize all of the discourse,” says Rivers. “I do not support Ashcroft’s nomination, and if he is confirmed I’ll work with him. Those are not two mutually exclusive positions.”

That sort of pragmatism resonates with Debra Dickerson, a 41-year-old African-American writer who is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the 2000 memoir An American Story, about her transformation from a conservative Ronald Reagan supporter to an iconoclastic liberal. Calling Jackson’s undeclared war on the Republican Party “self-destructive and stupid,” Dickerson says, “Jesse Jackson’s kids aren’t going to starve — the legitimate and the illegitimate ones. You can engage in that kind of protest politics when you don’t have to live with the consequences.”

Although Rivers is only nine years younger than Jackson, the difference between the two men seems almost part of a generational divide. Jackson stands for the politics of integration, assimilation, affirmative action; Rivers, for a type of black nationalism — not the separatism of Louis Farrakhan, but rather a “nation within a nation” where black people can build their own churches, schools, and communities. Nor is Rivers particularly taken with affirmative action, saying by way of example that, were he an MIT admissions officer, he would take a poor white kid from South Boston over an upper-middle-class black kid from the suburbs. Even hate crimes do not have the same kind of resonance for Rivers that they do for Jackson. In that regard, he may have more in common with blacks who are much younger than he does with his generational peers.

When I spoke with Debra Dickerson, for instance, she said something startling: “James Byrd got dragged behind a pick-up truck, but come on. That doesn’t happen anymore, and nobody applauded it except for a few morons.” I read that quote to Rivers; not only did he agree with the sentiment, but he expanded on it, criticizing black leaders’ obsession with the cases of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, innocent black men who were tortured and shot to death, respectively, by the New York City Police.

“The Diallo case and the Louima case, from everything we know, are the exceptions, not the rule,” he says. “The Diallo case was a criminal case. The decision was bad, it was politically charged, and they shouldn’t have moved the trial to wherever they moved it. Okay? But that’s not the greatest threat. Greater numbers of black youth murder black youth. In fact, I would argue that black-on-black homicide is the most tragic form of racial profiling we have, and it’s the most intractable. We don’t talk about black-on-black crime because it’s not sexy, it doesn’t bring a quick press hit, and it challenges, at the most fundamental level, the moral and political leadership of the black community. And we can’t deflect it on white racism. You see, in a perverse way we almost need the Diallo and Louima cases to deflect attention from deeper issues. There’s a perverse utility.”

This is Rivers as pure provocateur. Events such as the lynching of Byrd and the killing of Diallo may be exceptions — just as the homophobia-inspired murder of Matthew Shepard was an exception — but such hate crimes are especially horrifying because they are aimed at the victim’s very identity. As for black-on-black crime, Jackson made it an important element of his 1984 and ’88 presidential campaigns. Rivers has spent most of his career fighting it — emerging as a national figure as a result. If no one cares, how did that happen?

Two people who know Rivers well have differing takes on his overture to the Bush White House and his implicit challenge to Jackson.

Janis Pryor, a black political activist who used to work with the Ten Point Coalition, is dubious, saying, “I’m deeply troubled by Gene’s behavior around all this. I’m concerned that he does not appreciate the history of the black community. I say that because trying to step into the void left by Jesse is never done easily, and I’m not convinced Gene understands the depth or the seriousness of the arena he’s standing in now.”

But Sean Flynn, a white writer whose Rivers profile in the December 1996 issue of Boston magazine remains definitive, and who continues to talk with Rivers on a semi-regular basis, says, “I think he knows what he’s getting himself into. I think he is honestly doing this for the right reasons. If he wanted to do this as a steppingstone to power, he’d have a lot more power by now. And he certainly wouldn’t live in the neighborhood he’s living in.”

In the end, the success or failure of Rivers’s mission will come down to what Bush himself decides to do, and how Rivers responds. Two advisers to Bush — Marvin Olasky, a senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty who coined the term “compassionate conservatism,” and Ken Weinstein, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute — describe Bush as a committed Christian who genuinely wants to work with ministers such as Rivers. “I’ve seen this for a number of years. This is not just rhetoric for him,” Olasky says of Bush. Adds Weinstein of the president: “He can talk to them [ministers] in a way that his father never could, because his father never had this religious experience.”

Rivers himself seems both optimistic and unfazed by the prospect of working with Bush. For one thing, he notes that he’s not alone. Although Rivers has clearly taken the lead in the media, he emphasizes that he is just one of a number of ministers around the country who are involved in the initiative. He produces a copy of a January 22 open letter to Bush and notes two important elements that were largely ignored when the media reported on it.

The first is how tough it is: it blasts the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida and presents a challenging set of “practical proposals” such as canceling the debts of African nations so that they can fight the AIDS epidemic, providing universal health care, expanding child care, and freezing prison construction.

The second is the fact that Rivers was just one of 24 signatories. (Okay, another was his wife, Jacqueline Rivers.) The leader of the group was Bishop Charles Blake, pastor of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, in Los Angeles; Rivers describes his own role as helping to develop policy and acting as “consigliere.”

Rivers, who describes his own politics as “the hard right of what used to be called the New Left,” still counts Ho Chi Minh as one of his heroes — and says that if Ho could negotiate with a “war criminal” such as Henry Kissinger, how can blacks refuse to deal with Bush?

“The Republicans have two factions,” Rivers says. “One is probably just racist — they don’t care about black people, and they can all go to hell. Then there’s another group that are probably less primitive who say, ‘Our calculations are more cost-benefit: we make the investment, we don’t get a return. What’s the point? We appoint Powell and Rice, and the established leaders piss on our peace offering.’ ...

“This can be a complete failure, in which case we then become adversaries. No problem. We’ll extend the olive branch. If you spit on it, then we’re your adversaries, okay? And we will have credibility as adversaries, if we go there. Because if the liberals hear that the guys who tried to make peace got pissed on, then we all close ranks. So the beauty of it, in a perverse way, is, ‘President Bush, we’re making a peace offering, an overture. If you reject us, we win. Because then you’ve got no more political credibility. And then we just fight for the next four years.’”

But though he doesn’t like to admit it, Eugene Rivers’s target isn’t George W. Bush so much as it is Jesse Jackson — or, rather, the kind of politics Jackson espouses and represents. To Rivers, this is a key moment, akin to the mid 1950s, when the secular leadership embodied by the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall gave way to the religious leadership embodied by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, Jackson’s a minister, but his agenda is secular. Rivers has something else entirely in mind. “The liberals make a major political mistake by surrendering faith to the right,” he says. “For the poor, the language of faith is the only language and vocabulary that has the capacity to resurrect faith and hope for a generation of young people for whom faith and hope has died.”

Seen in this light, Bush is neither an ally nor an adversary but the means to an end — Henry Kissinger to Rivers’s Ho Chi Minh, if you will. Bush may not be Rivers’s kind of Christian (Rivers is appalled by Bush’s enthusiasm for the death penalty), but they can talk the same language and, for the moment at least, they’re promoting the same kinds of programs. For Rivers, who likes to think of himself as a practical, pragmatic man, that’s enough. At least for now.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com.

The Reverend Eugene Rivers bounds into the reception area of the Ella J. Baker House, a partially restored triple-decker in Dorchester that is the home of the Azusa Christian Community. It’s shortly after 11 a.m. last Friday, and the pastor of this Pentecostal church, youth center, and social-service agency is in a good mood. “You Negroes got to slow down,” he jokes, bantering with a worker who has a bad back. Rivers rattles the door to the stairway that leads to his third-floor office. No go. “Who’s got the keys, man?” he asks no one in particular. A staff member unlocks the door, and Rivers practically races upstairs.

Though Rivers is never far from the media’s spotlight, its heat has radiated with unusual intensity during the past few months. A co-founder of the Ten Point Coalition, a group of ministers credited with helping to solve Boston’s gang problem in the 1990s, Rivers has emerged as one of the most prominent black activists willing to do business with the Bush White House. He was among a coterie of clergy who met with George W. Bush in Austin on December 20, and has been traveling back and forth to Washington as well. But his outspoken style, which for years has made him as controversial as he is respected, has led to whispers that Rivers wants to supplant the Reverend Jesse Jackson as the country’s best-known black leader — and that Rivers may even have somehow been involved in the revelation last month that Jackson, who is married, had fathered a co-worker’s child.

All of which has left Rivers perplexed, bemused, and — his upbeat demeanor on this particular morning notwithstanding — a little angry. Referring to a recent Boston Globe story in which Rivers denied having leaked word of Jackson’s troubles to the National Enquirer, he says, “The idea that I somehow implicitly had enough juice to play any role whatsoever in Jesse’s bad fortune, as was intimated by two cub reporters who had nothing to write, is flattering in some very facile way, but interesting in that they were so completely out of the loop. As Time and Newsweek made clear, this stuff was known for over two years. That somehow Rivers had the juice to be able to play any significant role in that was — I said, ‘Now, who do you guys think I am?’ I said, ‘I’m not that much of a crackhead that I would smoke my own press clips and be that hallucinogenic.’ And, although truth won’t be told, I actually do real work.”

Rivers is also fired up about a column in which the Globe’s Adrian Walker, after praising Rivers, wrote, “There may or may not be a need for a new Jesse Jackson. But there was no excuse for the way Rivers danced on his presumptive grave last week, declaring the end of the civil-rights era that began in the 1950s and implying that he represents the future.” (Rivers’s offending words, according to a report in the Globe: “There is a whole new era of black politics. Jesse represents the last major figure of a civil-rights era that began in ... Montgomery — it was a 45-year run.”) Says Rivers of Walker’s column: “He’s got to give Rivers his biannual tickle to demonstrate to the world that America’s a safer place because Rivers will be taken down a peg or two. And that’s a good thing, a good thing for America. Every two years we need Adrian Walker to be the ombudsman for the Anybody but Rivers Society.”

Rivers delivers these complaints about “Journalism for the Simple-Minded 101,” as he calls it, calmly, even humorously. Yet he, more than anyone, knows the precarious nature of what he’s doing. No, he may not be trying to replace Jesse Jackson the person. But he certainly is trying to replace the traditionally liberal agenda of affirmative action and civil rights that has dominated racial discourse for two generations. Rivers says he voted for Al Gore, and is as offended as Jackson by the possibility that black voters in Florida may have been disenfranchised in such numbers that it tipped the election to Bush.

At the same time, though, Rivers criticizes Jackson — and other traditional black leaders, such as the Reverend Al Sharpton and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus — for refusing to deal with the Bush administration, for having no back-up plan beyond protesting Gore’s defeat. “We stuck all of our political eggs in one basket, the basket got knocked off the table, and then we didn’t know how to respond,” he says. “And all we can say is, ‘I’m crying about Florida,’ while the imperatives of governance and the affairs of state move forward.”

Then, too, Rivers understands perfectly well that Bush’s presidency may represent an unusual opportunity for ideas he’s been promoting for years — a much better opportunity, in fact, than he would have had if Gore were president. On Monday, Bush announced a major initiative in faith-based social services and put University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio — an old friend and compatriot of Rivers’s — in charge of it. Rivers was on hand at the White House for the announcement. Indeed, DiIulio tipped Rivers off that something big was up last Friday, while I was interviewing him. (“It’s John D! He’s calling from the West Wing!” he said excitedly.) The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have already announced their opposition to the initiative, charging that it amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. To Rivers, though, a federal boost for faith-based social programs is a chance to extend the work he’s been doing for more than a decade.

At 50, Rivers is a slight, compactly built man with gray hair, a gray mustache and goatee, and round, slightly oversize, wire-rimmed glasses. His speech is a mixture of academic erudition (he attended classes at Yale without enrolling and dropped out of Harvard) and street panache. His large office commands a striking view of Dorchester Bay, about a mile to the east; yet it is so devoid of furnishings that his voice echoes off the walls. Wearing a bluish-purplish T-shirt that says washington d.c. and a blue blazer, he smiles readily, sometimes hunching down or leaning to one side when he’s trying to make a point, rapping his knuckles on the table in front of him for emphasis. This may not be his moment. But he certainly hopes it’s the political and intellectual moment he’s been working for.

“For the record, Jackson has been for 40 years a voice for the voiceless, a force for good and progressive politics in the United States,” Rivers says. “His personal difficulties are his personal difficulties. He, not unlike everybody else in life, has his ups and downs, and he has his personal problems. That’s his affair. Full stop.”

He pauses before plunging into an implicit critique of Jackson’s career: “I have never had any aspirations ever in my adult life to have my primary constituency be microphones. I’ve never had an interest in going from issue to issue to issue and not following through over the long term. My commitment is to cultivating a new, younger black leadership that understands that politics is not about rhetoric or merely protest. Sometimes it is protest and direct action, but those activities are simply part of a multifaceted strategy, with the end game being programs, policies, and results. And so I have no personal interest in that. There are a different set of ideas that are not embodied in one individual, but are in action across the country, in cities that can be identified and leadership that can be identified — an entirely new post-civil-rights consensus that says the language, rhetoric, ideology, and icons of the last 45 years are a spent force, and we simply have a new epoch.”

The Ten Point Coalition was born on May 14, 1992. On that day, inside the Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, lay a casket containing the body of Robert Odom, a 20-year-old who had been shot at a party. Suddenly, with mourners filing by, a young man named Jerome Brunson came running in, pursued by angry gang members. Brunson was shot. Unlike Odom, he lived. But the sheer amoral anarchy of the situation shook Boston’s clergy to its core.

Some 300 ministers got together to draft a plan of action. Most drifted away; Rivers and a few others — notably the Reverend Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain, and the Reverend Jeffrey Brown, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge — stayed. They initiated the 10-point plan of direct action from which the alliance takes its name. Rivers, Hammond, and Brown hit the streets, counseling young hoodlums and working with law enforcement. Gang leaders were locked up; gang members — some of them, anyway — turned their lives around. The murder rate declined precipitously, and without the corresponding increase in police brutality that marred a similar drop in violent crime in New York City. “We demonstrated in Boston, where the city was racially polarized 25 years ago, that you can deracialize law enforcement, and the black community can develop pragmatic and strategic partnerships with law enforcement,” Rivers says. “And it’s well known that the Boston model now functions as a national model, recognized by everybody.”

As the Ten Point Coalition’s most visible symbol, Rivers drew both praise and criticism. Rivers was from the streets, the product of a troubled childhood in Philadelphia in which he himself was forced into a gang. In Boston, he moved his young family deep into gang territory, and nearly paid a terrible price: a young drug dealer with whom he had clashed pumped several bullets into his house one night, nearly striking Rivers’s son, Malcolm. An intellectual and something of a hustler, Rivers also liked to mouth off, sparking resentment from people who should have been his allies. He was featured on the cover of Newsweek, and was the subject of long, favorable profiles in Boston magazine and the New Yorker. Rivers protested that he hadn’t sought out such accolades, but there they were.

Rivers has a gift for the well-wrought putdown, a gift that has brought him still more trouble. In the early ’90s he wrote a letter to the Boston Review in which he blasted the black intelligentsia, personified by Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates Jr., the director of Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute. Rivers said that “it is far from clear what substantive differences there are between the moral decay of the young drug dealers on the block and that of the elite intellectuals who prostitute themselves while contributing to a moral and ideological framework indispensable to the justification of inequality.” (Rivers and Gates have since reached an accommodation; last summer, the DuBois Institute donated a computer lab to Baker House.)

Later, in a lengthy essay in the Boston Review, Rivers’s rigorous advocacy of a new, church-oriented black nationalism based on self-help and self-reliance was overshadowed by his criticism of the “nationalism of fools” promoted most prominently, he charged, by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. “They are cynically anti-Semitic, mean-spirited, and simply incompetent,” Rivers wrote. “Their trains, unlike Mussolini’s, do not run on time; in fact, they do not run at all. They are all demagoguery, uniforms, bow ties, and theater.”

In 1998, Rivers was kicked off the board of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts after he criticized its then-chairwoman, Joan Wallace-Benjamin, for her protest of an offensive headline Boston magazine had slapped on an otherwise fine profile of Skip Gates: head negro in charge. By Rivers’s standards, the rhetoric was pretty mild; but board members were incensed that Rivers had chosen to disagree with their position in public, to the point of debating Wallace-Benjamin on NBC’s Today show.

The Urban League imbroglio led the Bay State Banner, a local black newspaper, to publish an editorial blasting Rivers as “a flash in the pan,” charging that many in the white media seek him out because he “is entertaining, a veritable one-man minstrel show.” More important, it led Rivers to apologize publicly, telling the Globe’s Adrian Walker, “I regret the discomfort that this controversy has produced for chairwoman Joan Wallace-Benjamin, and I again apologize to her and the board of the Urban League for the style and tone of the confrontation.”

For the most part, Rivers has cooled his rhetoric since then — witness how carefully he elides the issue of Jackson’s personal life, even while criticizing him for such things as his silence on the genocide in Rwanda and the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone during Jackson’s tenure as the Clinton administration’s special envoy for African affairs.

Locally, too, he’s turned down the heat. For instance, in 1999 Rivers was the subject of an extraordinary news conference held at the Nation of Islam’s Mosque 11, where Minister Don Muhammad blasted Rivers for taking unearned credit for the drop in crime. According to an account in the Bay State Banner, Muhammad — with former mayor Ray Flynn, Boston city councilor (and former police commissioner) Mickey Roache, and former police superintendent Bill Celester looking on — aimed a withering putdown at Rivers, saying, “We will not stand idly by and watch groups, organizations, and individuals who are earnest in their attempt to make a change for the betterment of their communities be duped by slick media pimps.”

Yet Rivers says he tries to work with Muhammad on issues of mutual interest, such as calls for an investigation into the recent killing of Ricky Bodden, who was shot in the back of the neck by an inexperienced Boston Municipal Police officer named Kyle Wilcox. Rivers was initially dismissive of the matter, telling the Globe, “This was a player with a gun, who was setting himself up for trouble. Sometimes when you play, you get hurt.” But Rivers now says he supports Muhammad’s efforts to learn more about what actually happened.

For all Eugene Rivers’s talk about a “post-civil-rights consensus,” it’s way too early to say that Jesse Jackson’s politics of civil rights and affirmative action are out and Rivers’s faith-based black nationalism is in.

David Bositis begs to differ with the notion that Jackson has somehow become irrelevant. A senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which analyzes public opinion among African-Americans, Bositis says Jackson’s favorable/unfavorable ratings among blacks are an enviable 83/9 — exceeded only by Bill Clinton’s unworldly 91/5. Granted, Bositis’s numbers are from last fall, before the revelation of Jackson’s infidelity. But Bositis is quite certain that it won’t matter. “I do not think Jesse has suffered in terms of what happened,” he says. “He did among white conservatives, but white conservatives don’t like him anyway.”

As Bositis sees it, Rivers has set himself a difficult task: negotiating with a president who, because of Florida, is immensely unpopular with African-Americans, and circumventing the traditional black leadership while doing it. Still, Bositis says it’s worth trying — as long as Rivers doesn’t allow himself to be seen as either a toady of the Bush administration or someone who’s trying to take advantage of Jackson’s difficulties. “In terms of the role he seems to be proposing, it’s a tightrope,” Bositis says. “If anything, the level of hostility between African-Americans and the Republican Party has increased. Do I worry about that? I do. For African-Americans it’s a one-party system. White people have a choice of two parties. Black people don’t.”

As Bositis’s comments suggest, even if Jackson remains popular with African-Americans, his brand of protest politics has reached something of a political and intellectual dead end. Joe Klein, who has written about Rivers’s work in the New Yorker, criticizes the traditional black leadership for spurning Bush even though “Bush ran with the most creative domestic policy of any candidate in memory. He spent more time talking about poor people in his campaign than any Democrat.” Klein may be laying it on a bit thick (it’s hard to see how a $1.6 trillion tax cut skewed toward the wealthy helps poor people), but there’s little question that Bush’s talk about “compassionate conservatism” and faith-based social services represents at least a rhetorical step up from that offered by the more troglodytic Republicans of the recent past.

By this logic there’s even an upside to Bush’s choice for attorney general, John Ashcroft, who has justifiably enraged African-Americans because of his disingenuous opposition to Ronnie White’s nomination for a federal-district-court judgeship, his stand against school desegregation, and his pro-Confederate comments to the white-supremacist magazine Southern Partisan. As a senator, Ashcroft was a leading advocate of so-called charitable choice, which would make it easier for the federal government to fund faith-based programs of the sort Rivers supports. “Ashcroft should be opposed, if one is against Ashcroft, on the merits of his policy positions. It should not be a Shaka Zulu festival, where you racialize all of the discourse,” says Rivers. “I do not support Ashcroft’s nomination, and if he is confirmed I’ll work with him. Those are not two mutually exclusive positions.”

That sort of pragmatism resonates with Debra Dickerson, a 41-year-old African-American writer who is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the 2000 memoir An American Story, about her transformation from a conservative Ronald Reagan supporter to an iconoclastic liberal. Calling Jackson’s undeclared war on the Republican Party “self-destructive and stupid,” Dickerson says, “Jesse Jackson’s kids aren’t going to starve — the legitimate and the illegitimate ones. You can engage in that kind of protest politics when you don’t have to live with the consequences.”

Although Rivers is only nine years younger than Jackson, the difference between the two men seems almost part of a generational divide. Jackson stands for the politics of integration, assimilation, affirmative action; Rivers, for a type of black nationalism — not the separatism of Louis Farrakhan, but rather a “nation within a nation” where black people can build their own churches, schools, and communities. Nor is Rivers particularly taken with affirmative action, saying by way of example that, were he an MIT admissions officer, he would take a poor white kid from South Boston over an upper-middle-class black kid from the suburbs. Even hate crimes do not have the same kind of resonance for Rivers that they do for Jackson. In that regard, he may have more in common with blacks who are much younger than he does with his generational peers.

When I spoke with Debra Dickerson, for instance, she said something startling: “James Byrd got dragged behind a pick-up truck, but come on. That doesn’t happen anymore, and nobody applauded it except for a few morons.” I read that quote to Rivers; not only did he agree with the sentiment, but he expanded on it, criticizing black leaders’ obsession with the cases of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, innocent black men who were tortured and shot to death, respectively, by the New York City Police.

“The Diallo case and the Louima case, from everything we know, are the exceptions, not the rule,” he says. “The Diallo case was a criminal case. The decision was bad, it was politically charged, and they shouldn’t have moved the trial to wherever they moved it. Okay? But that’s not the greatest threat. Greater numbers of black youth murder black youth. In fact, I would argue that black-on-black homicide is the most tragic form of racial profiling we have, and it’s the most intractable. We don’t talk about black-on-black crime because it’s not sexy, it doesn’t bring a quick press hit, and it challenges, at the most fundamental level, the moral and political leadership of the black community. And we can’t deflect it on white racism. You see, in a perverse way we almost need the Diallo and Louima cases to deflect attention from deeper issues. There’s a perverse utility.”

This is Rivers as pure provocateur. Events such as the lynching of Byrd and the killing of Diallo may be exceptions — just as the homophobia-inspired murder of Matthew Shepard was an exception — but such hate crimes are especially horrifying because they are aimed at the victim’s very identity. As for black-on-black crime, Jackson made it an important element of his 1984 and ’88 presidential campaigns. Rivers has spent most of his career fighting it — emerging as a national figure as a result. If no one cares, how did that happen?

Two people who know Rivers well have differing takes on his overture to the Bush White House and his implicit challenge to Jackson.

Janis Pryor, a black political activist who used to work with the Ten Point Coalition, is dubious, saying, “I’m deeply troubled by Gene’s behavior around all this. I’m concerned that he does not appreciate the history of the black community. I say that because trying to step into the void left by Jesse is never done easily, and I’m not convinced Gene understands the depth or the seriousness of the arena he’s standing in now.”

But Sean Flynn, a white writer whose Rivers profile in the December 1996 issue of Boston magazine remains definitive, and who continues to talk with Rivers on a semi-regular basis, says, “I think he knows what he’s getting himself into. I think he is honestly doing this for the right reasons. If he wanted to do this as a steppingstone to power, he’d have a lot more power by now. And he certainly wouldn’t live in the neighborhood he’s living in.”

In the end, the success or failure of Rivers’s mission will come down to what Bush himself decides to do, and how Rivers responds. Two advisers to Bush — Marvin Olasky, a senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty who coined the term “compassionate conservatism,” and Ken Weinstein, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute — describe Bush as a committed Christian who genuinely wants to work with ministers such as Rivers. “I’ve seen this for a number of years. This is not just rhetoric for him,” Olasky says of Bush. Adds Weinstein of the president: “He can talk to them [ministers] in a way that his father never could, because his father never had this religious experience.”

Rivers himself seems both optimistic and unfazed by the prospect of working with Bush. For one thing, he notes that he’s not alone. Although Rivers has clearly taken the lead in the media, he emphasizes that he is just one of a number of ministers around the country who are involved in the initiative. He produces a copy of a January 22 open letter to Bush and notes two important elements that were largely ignored when the media reported on it.

The first is how tough it is: it blasts the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida and presents a challenging set of “practical proposals” such as canceling the debts of African nations so that they can fight the AIDS epidemic, providing universal health care, expanding child care, and freezing prison construction.

The second is the fact that Rivers was just one of 24 signatories. (Okay, another was his wife, Jacqueline Rivers.) The leader of the group was Bishop Charles Blake, pastor of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, in Los Angeles; Rivers describes his own role as helping to develop policy and acting as “consigliere.”

Rivers, who describes his own politics as “the hard right of what used to be called the New Left,” still counts Ho Chi Minh as one of his heroes — and says that if Ho could negotiate with a “war criminal” such as Henry Kissinger, how can blacks refuse to deal with Bush?

“The Republicans have two factions,” Rivers says. “One is probably just racist — they don’t care about black people, and they can all go to hell. Then there’s another group that are probably less primitive who say, ‘Our calculations are more cost-benefit: we make the investment, we don’t get a return. What’s the point? We appoint Powell and Rice, and the established leaders piss on our peace offering.’ ...

“This can be a complete failure, in which case we then become adversaries. No problem. We’ll extend the olive branch. If you spit on it, then we’re your adversaries, okay? And we will have credibility as adversaries, if we go there. Because if the liberals hear that the guys who tried to make peace got pissed on, then we all close ranks. So the beauty of it, in a perverse way, is, ‘President Bush, we’re making a peace offering, an overture. If you reject us, we win. Because then you’ve got no more political credibility. And then we just fight for the next four years.’”

But though he doesn’t like to admit it, Eugene Rivers’s target isn’t George W. Bush so much as it is Jesse Jackson — or, rather, the kind of politics Jackson espouses and represents. To Rivers, this is a key moment, akin to the mid 1950s, when the secular leadership embodied by the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall gave way to the religious leadership embodied by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, Jackson’s a minister, but his agenda is secular. Rivers has something else entirely in mind. “The liberals make a major political mistake by surrendering faith to the right,” he says. “For the poor, the language of faith is the only language and vocabulary that has the capacity to resurrect faith and hope for a generation of young people for whom faith and hope has died.”

Seen in this light, Bush is neither an ally nor an adversary but the means to an end — Henry Kissinger to Rivers’s Ho Chi Minh, if you will. Bush may not be Rivers’s kind of Christian (Rivers is appalled by Bush’s enthusiasm for the death penalty), but they can talk the same language and, for the moment at least, they’re promoting the same kinds of programs. For Rivers, who likes to think of himself as a practical, pragmatic man, that’s enough. At least for now.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com.