Melinda Henneberger

Anatomy of a smear: Why did KC’s Freedom, Inc. fund a racist campaign mailer?

Is there not enough racism and fearmongering at large in the land without Freedom, Inc. contributing its own share of the poison to which they’re supposed to be an antidote?

On its website, Freedom describes itself as “a political and civil rights organization that is responsive to the needs, issues and concerns of the African American community.”

Which doesn’t at all line up with the “Hey, white people, be afraid!” mailer targeting a black Kansas City Council candidate the group did not support, Missouri state Rep. Brandon Ellington. He narrowly won anyway on Tuesday — 29,700 votes to 28,165 — and will succeed Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas in the 3rd District at-large seat on the City Council.

But in an effort to beat Ellington, Freedom donated $12,500 to a third-party PAC known as Concerned Citizens of Waldo, which sent out a mailer juxtaposing a photo of a rifle-wielding Ellington from the cover of a rap CD he put out years ago with an image of Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza.

In other words, LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS, because an armed black man is on the loose and gunning for the upscale shopping district where even the presence of minority kids can set off a panic.

The ad was so bad that it fatally wounded the black candidate it was supposed to help, the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield II, an old-school mensch who most certainly did not approve this message, or even know about it beforehand, and was heartsick when he did see it.

“These are the kind of negative images that historically have been used to demean and dehumanize particularly young black men,” said Hartsfield, pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist on Linwood Boulevard in the urban core. “It’s a stereotypical projection — a young black man with a gun has been one of the stereotypes.”

None of this was lost on my mostly white neighbors south of UMKC, who referred to the mailer’s message as a disgusting “racist stew” and an “ugly” embarrassment in an online conversation on a neighborhood website. “That picture of him holding the rifle with the Plaza tower in the background is so clearly racial in its intent,” one wrote. Sure it was.

Yet somehow, folks at Freedom claimed not to know why anyone would think that.

“First of all,’’ said co-president Gayle Holliday, “who said we put it out?” The political action committee’s own required financial report, that’s who. “We contribute to several PAC groups that were supporting our various candidates,” she said, and claimed no one at Freedom had any idea what the PAC would do with that money.

Holliday said she still hasn’t even seen the mailer, which if true might be even more irresponsible. This was the most notable thing Freedom did in this election cycle, but she didn’t want to look? And was no one in the organization who has seen it upset by its message? “I think some were upset about it,” she said, but “you have to make your own story. I’m not going to give you a story.”

Two other people at Freedom, neither of whom wanted to be quoted, said the group didn’t design the mailer or know what would be in it, but what’s the big deal when it did Hartsfield no harm, everybody puts out similar mailers, and anyway there was nothing racist about it.

The absurdity of me telling them what racism looks like makes me wonder why this supposed civil rights group still exists. One of those I spoke to said that despite the description on Freedom’s website, it has nothing to do with civil rights, but is concerned with electoral politics, period.

It wasn’t a good decision on that basis, either. Ellington still blames Hartsfield, whose whole life’s work argues against his involvement, and many others assumed his guilt, too. “Freedom and Wallace got a negative reaction and want to separate themselves,” Ellington said, now that people have “seen through it.”

Because you can’t prove a negative, there was no way for Hartsfield to change that perception, either. “There’s so much I still don’t understand about it,” says the reverend, who is not a politician at all, but a man who was asked to step up and run and did. He does think the mailer may have lost him the contest in such a tight race, “but I’m not blaming anyone because I still don’t know everything. I just don’t think it helped anything.”

Amen to that. Inside Freedom, which gave black people a voice when they didn’t have one, there were some sick stomachs over the mailer after it hit. But the group’s leaders couldn’t have thought it was going to be an aboveboard ad because that’s not what third-party PACS do. That they were desperate to see Ellington lose and Hartsfield win is no excuse.

Our editorial board also enthusiastically backed Hartsfield over Ellington. But to fight racism with racism is to become what you hate. And more than that, to forget who you are.

This is a state where black motorists are 91% more likely than whites to be stopped by police, and a country where babies are ripped from their immigrant parents’ arms. Where only the latest front-page affront to decency involves that Phoenix family of a 4-year-old black girl surrounded by cursing police officers, guns drawn, after she took a doll from a dollar store. So Freedom, you need to apologize for rather than try to deny your attempted contribution to the perception that black men are thugs and white voters are easy to manipulate.

Once-powerful Freedom, whose influence has been waning for years, had another not good night on Tuesday. Their mayoral candidate Quinton Lucas won, but in such a citywide blowout that no one could argue that the group deserves credit. In addition to Hartsfield, Freedom-blessed candidates Geoff Jolley and Dwayne Williams both lost. And this was the first time since the ‘70s that the Freedom-backed candidate didn’t win in the 3rd District, where the organization was born and grew up.

If it doesn’t learn from that outcome, its atrophy will continue. But the greater disappointment is that Kansas City will be denied the throwback, completely non-egotistical service of Wallace Hartsfield as a direct result of Freedom’s cynical attempt, too-Machiavellian-by-half, to get the right result with wrong action.