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Rebuilding a nation from the ground up

When Minister Lonnie Batts Jr. was growing up in the cotton fields, the influence of his parents and the guidance of the church were beacons of hope that saw him through a childhood that he describes as a “history of slavery.”...
Minister Lonnie Batts Jr. hopes his newly organized Youth Unlimited Safety Net will make a difference in the lives of troubled youth and teens. The program targets rebuilding the community by bettering the social position of its youth. He is surrounded by his grandchildren: Norma Sallis, Libby Tate, Justin Batts Jr., and Raven Tate. (Photo by Ernest C. Withers)

When Minister Lonnie Batts Jr. was growing up in the cotton fields, the influence of his parents and the guidance of the church were beacons of hope that saw him through a childhood that he describes as a “history of slavery.”

“When we stood in the hot sun, chopping the cotton and plowing the cotton and picking the cotton, we would have to put up with the old sharecrop owner,” Batts says. “And the church gave me strength; the church gave me hope when I was coming up.”

Years later, with the specter of slavery less visible, Batts says the strength of the Black community is being tested by high crime levels and political neglect. And while the church was a mainstay when he was growing up, he believes some of the churches of today are no longer as prevalent in the lives of Blacks.

“It seems that at 1:30 on Sunday afternoon, the church is over,” he says. “All the programs here in the city of Memphis that can and were helping our young people have been phased out. Our city parks, our playgrounds, have become recruiting grounds for gangs.”

While Batts’ parents gave him and his siblings a “vision” to overcome obstacles, some children today are missing out on these important life lessons.

“The opportunities for children now are available, but we have to teach them how to take advantage of it,” he says. “We’re going to try to take up the slack where there are dysfunctional parents.”

In order to reverse the social and economic backsliding that has plagued the Black community for decades, Batts founded the Youth Unlimited Safety Net, which he runs out of his home office. The program is modeled after a program that was begun in Chicago over 30 years ago and aims to rebuild the community by bettering the social position of its youth.

The program, whose mission is to “save our children through the combined efforts of education,” is a year-round and serves children ages five through seventeen. It aims to improve the socioeconomic chances for local youth through training programs and by emphasizing important life skills, including job readiness, computer training, substance and drug abuse counseling, among others.

The Memphis program is currently in its initial stages, but Batts hopes it will one day be closely aligned with local law enforcement to aid in the objective of saving local youth from the perils of crime.

Batts’s commitment to the youth and community development is not a recent undertaking. Batts, who is described by friends and family members as a community activist, became involved over 40 years ago when he was visiting Chicago.

“I was about 22 years old and I saw a lot of killings from the gangs. I saw a lot of neglect of our Black youth in the city,” he says. “This is part of my calling when it comes to Jesus Christ.”

According to his wife, Shirley, Batts’ hands-on approach to community improvement, which extends beyond the pulpit, is important in making the church an active part of the Black community.

“A lot of the time people say that he is just different; he’s saying things that need to be said instead of just ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Amen’ and ‘God is alright,’” she says. “You know, we know that. But he preaches what people need to hear, what is relevant, what people really need to know and how you’re going to survive now.”

And according to Minister Batts, the best way to the revive the community and strengthen its chances for survival is by improving the life chances of Black youth.

“I’m concerned about the direction of our young people here in this city because it seems that they are neglected by the political structure,” he says. “And we’ve got to put our youth first. If you want to better the community, you have the build better children; if you want to better the city, let’s start with the youth.”

For Batts, a grandfather to 11, crime in the city of Memphis, which according to AreaConnect.com boasted an overall crime index of 9,853.7 crimes per 100,000 people in 2004—nearly 2.5 times the national average—is a major impediment to the social growth of local youth.

“I worry about the kind of society that my grandchildren are having to grow up in,” he says. “It’s my intent to help change some of the conditions and develop a community that is conducive to their livelihood.”

Batts’s concerns about the affect of crime on local youth are not unfounded. According to the 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 15.3 percent of students reported that they had been in a physical fight on school property and 9 percent of students enrolled in grades nine through 12 reported that they had been threatened or injured with a weapon, such as a gun, knife or club, on school property in the 12 months prior to the survey’s administering, and 5.1 percent of students reported that they had brought a weapon onto school grounds in the 30 days prior to the survey’s administering.

However, Batts says he is optimistic that if the community comes together, the crime question can be answered.

“Crime is everybody’s problem,” he says, “and we’re just going to have to get together to solve it.”

Batts believes that arming young people with the skills they need to achieve economic independence and freedom from social welfare, which he describes as a different kind of slavery, is vital to survival in America.

“We’re concerned about economics and teaching the children how to make money,” he says. “We want to get them away from welfare and teach them how to fare well; that’s what we’re all about.”

Jay Anderson, the program director at WMQM 1600 AM where Minister Batts has a weekly radio program, says that Batts’s message is consistent with his objectives for the Youth Unlimited Safety Net program.

“He does a lot of teaching,” he said. “The last broadcast he was teaching about buying and selling and credit and how not to spend yourself into debt; he has a teaching broadcast and it may vary but normally it’s about telling young people how to live their lives apart from a sinful life.”

Batts also says that a major objective of the Youth Unlimited Safety Net is to redefine for the youth what it means to be Black and successful in America.

“Our children only see one area of accomplishment and that’s basketball,” he says. “We need more good school teachers, we need more good doctors and lawyers. We need more good political leaders. These are the things that we are going to try to produce.”

Mrs. Batts says the success of the program will be contingent upon how receptive other community leaders are to her husband’s objectives.

“I think it’s going to make a difference,” she says. “But he’s going to have to have some help. I don’t think he’s going to be able to do it by himself.”

While Minister Batts says that he is “bitter” about the way that some of the Black churches are operating with regards to the Black community, he is confident that the program will prop the doors of the Black church open to the community permanently.

“We’re going to set our children free. Education is the key out of poverty because it’s the development of the mind, soul, and body,” he says. “And this is something the Black church should know. They need to know this.”

The Youth Unlimited Safety Net will hold its first annual fundraising banquet Saturday July 29 at the South Memphis Senior Center. Call (901) 947-5102 for more details.

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