Melvin Whitley was a minister at the church I pastor. I remember the first time I heard him preach. He stood broken. He shared being out of control. The flashbacks kept coming. The memories of Vietnam stayed locked in his head.
From the pile of ashes that once stood as a souvenir of days gone bad, Whitley is positioned to lead the influential Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. Thursday's election at White Rock Baptist Church could bring an end to the 12-year tenure of Lavonia Allison.
This election is the classic battle between old money, pedigree and education, and dirt poor, homeless and addicted. Whitley has been called quick-tempered. Some question his motives. Others point to his criminal record. "I can't work with him because he refuses to listen," a member of the political arm of the Durham Committee told me. That person recounted a frenzied altercation between Whitley and Allison at a Durham Committee meeting.
Conversations surrounding Whitley have more to do with his past than his achievements as a grassroots organizer. People want to know more about that indecent exposure charge back in 2005 and the 18 assault charges filed against him.
"I was the first man in America to get arrested for using the bathroom," he told me. It happened during an NAACP executive board meeting at the North Carolina Mutual Building. A female custodian was mopping the floor. According to Whitley, she asked him not to use the bathroom. She went to the supervisor, who fired her for making the complaint against Whitley.
"After she was fired, she called and asked me for money. I wouldn't do it," Whitley said. The woman filed charges against Whitley. The case was thrown out of court before he faced a judge.
It reminded Whitley of days before the change. "Sixteen years ago I went from having dinner with the governor to being on the soup line," Whitley said. One day he sold his shoes for a hit. It started to snow.
"I lived in boarded-up houses. One day I saw this house people had moved out of that day thinking I could find something to sell not to get shoes but to get another hit. In there was a hymn book. I got out the hymn book and started singing 'Jesus keep me near the cross'."
The next day, Whitley began his journey to recovery. "I went in the prayer room at the rescue mission in Raleigh to cuss God out about my wife dying, Vietnam, being homeless and attempting suicide," Whitley said. "Right then I said to God if you don't let me die, then you would have to fix it."
Whitley says he was arrested 18 times on assault charges dating back 30 years. He called himself a moral thug. He would attack drug dealers who failed to show up in court. He says his rage was connected to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. "I hated white people to the point I wouldn't wear a white T-shirt or underwear," he said.
I asked him the biggest difference between him and Allison. "I'm capable of saying I made a mistake, and I'm willing to forgive people," he said. He talked about his shortcomings and how he listens to his critics. If it fits, he puts it on; if it doesn't, he takes it off.
His goals for the Durham Committee are simple: bring back trust into the Durham Committee, bring people back to the table, to create goals that are measurable, to evaluate leadership every six months, identify future leaders and to establish a membership fee.
From that day at Compassion Ministries Whitley stands on the brink of leading the Durham Committee. It's funny how a story of change can be celebrated in some places and used to hinder in others. Those of us who have been addicted understand what it means to endure change. It's hard to talk about the passion that inspires one to make a difference. "I left people on the streets who are still there," Whitley said. "We need to go back and help them."
Count me in, Melvin. Let's go get them.