Anthony, Wendell 1950–
Wendell Anthony 1950–
Minister, NAACP leader
When the Detroit chapter of the NAACP chose the Reverend Wendell Anthony as its president in 1993, it signified a new era for this particular branch, which has the largest membership roster in the country. An outspoken, dynamic minister whose master’s thesis once discussed the church as an agent for reform and renewal inside the urban African American community, Anthony immediately set about revitalizing what some saw was a moribund local organization.
Anthony was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1950. When he was two years-old, his parents divorced. Anthony’s mother eventually remarried, and left her young son with relatives for a time while she and her new husband established themselves in Detroit. Anthony moved to Detroit when he was eight, and grew up in a comfortable home on the city’s west side. His parents both worked for the post office. Anthony’s sense of justice showed itself at an early age: he claimed to have once led a walkout of his elementary school classroom over an unfair punishment. By the mid-1960s, the era of the burgeoning black power movement, Anthony used some of the movement’s arguments as president of the student council at Detroit Central High School. He argued for a black history curriculum within the school system, and called for the hiring of more teachers and administrators of color. When a favorite administrator was transferred out of Central High, Anthony organized a protest against the decision.
During the summer of 1967, Anthony watched as Detroit was torn apart by terrible riots that devastated entire city blocks. African American De-troiters endured National Guard troops and army tanks that were stationed within their neighborhoods, and large numbers of whites fled the city in the riot’s aftermath. The crisis also heralded the start of a concerted effort by the city’s numerous African American social, political, and religious groups to create a positive force for change within the community. Anthony was already a part of this movement, having engaged in civil-rights actions earlier in the decade with the NAACP youth group. He also became active in his church, Fellowship Chapel, and became a protégé of its pastor, the Reverend James Wadsworth.
After graduating from Central High in 1968, Anthony enrolled at Wayne State University, where he continued his activism. In 1970, he was invited to participate
At a Glance…
Born 1950, in St. Louis, MO; son of James (a postal worker) and Ida (a postal worker) Patton; married Janice Germaine, 1972 (divorced, 1985); children: Tolani, Maia, Education: Wayne State University, B.A., 1976; Marygrove College, M.A., 1984.
Career: Broadstreet Presbyterian Church, Detroit, MI, coordinator of community outreach program, 1974–80; ordained minister, 1981; Holt, Rinehart, and Winston (textbookpublishers), sales representative, mid-1980s; Fellowship Chapel, Detroit, MI associate minister, 1983–86, pastor, 1986-; head of Detroit Branch NAACP 1993-.
Addresses: Office— Detroit Branch NAACP, 2990 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit, MI 48205.
in a trip to Africa sponsored in part by the Fellowship Chapel. He and other young leaders spent two months in Ghana and Liberia, a visit Anthony later called a decisive event in his life. “We saw and stayed with people from the government, the Peace Corps and just regular people,” he told Joe Swickard of the Detroit Free Press. “It just struck me so powerfully—here were black folks running the government, the schools, everything. It was a revelation. I had never seen black folks in charge of anything like that before. It inspired me”.
As a result of that trip, Anthony began a longtime association with the Pan African Congress, a group created to foster socio-political links with Africa, and he would make several subsequent trips to the continent. While taking courses at Wayne State, he found work as the coordinator of a community outreach program for a Detroit church, which allowed him to implement some of his progressive ideas about African American identity and self-reliance. Anthony oversaw a tutoring program for youths, and served as a liaison between the church and several neighborhood groups. When he graduated from Wayne State in 1976, Anthony was certified as a social worker, but never worked formally in the profession. By this time, he was also married and the father of a daughter.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Anthony studied for the ministry—rejecting the idea of law school, which had tempted him for a time—and worked as a school textbook salesperson. He also became increasingly active in the church of his youth, Fellowship Chapel. Two years after his ordination, Anthony became an associate pastor at the church. He earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Detroit’s Marygrove College in 1984. His marriage ended that year, and a bitter legal battle ensued. Anthony eventually won custody of his two daughters.
It became evident that Rev. Wadsworth was considering Anthony as his eventual successor, but that moment was hastened when the pastor fell ill with cancer. After Wadsworti’s death in 1986, Anthony became the leader of the Fellowship Chapel’s congregation. He immediately began working to revitalize the church by bringing in new members and creating an atmosphere of devoutness mingled with social activism. He founded the Isuthu Institute (Coming into Manhood Program), one of oldest such male mentoring programs in the United States; its female counterpart, the Intonjane Institute, also developed in time. “With Anthony at the helm, Fellowship became a church noted for having an unusually large number of men in its congregation and its programs for young black males,” wrote Detroit Free Press reporter Dori J. Maynard.
Anthony’s reputation as one of Detroit’s most dynamic African American pastors continued to develop. In the spring of 1990, he was invited to join a 21-person delegation of American church leaders who met with recently freed South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela. Later that year, Anthony co-chaired the leg of a Freedom Tour that brought Mandela to Detroit. Also in 1990, he became involved in a boycott of one of the city’s two newspapers, the Detroit Free Press as well as the local ABC television affiliate. At the time, race relations in Detroit were tense, and the media was considered partly to blame. Corporate-run media such as the Detroit Free Press and the ABC affiliate seemed to focus on the more sensational stories and problems revolving around the city and its predominantly African American leadership.
Anthony announced the boycott from his pulpit at the Fellowship Chapel. The boycott, which was instigated by the Inter-Faith Council of Religious and Civic Leaders, was a turning point in race relations in Detroit. Several months later, an executive of the boycotted television station told the Detroit Free Press, “I think probably it has made everybody a little more sensitive. Has it totally changed the way we do things? No, but there have probably been some little changes here and there,”
Anthony continued to lead an annual pilgrimage of Detroiters to African countries in an itinerary that included Ghana, Senegal, and Benin, and expanded the congregation and social-service programs at his Fellowship Chapel. Membership at the chapel would eventually quadruple during Anthony’s tenure as pastor. Since the mid-1980s, the Isuthu and Intonjane Institutes were joined by job-training programs, ACT and SAT preparation courses, and even the establishment of a health clinic in Ghana. Anthony continued to lead Sunday services. “When I’m preaching, I’m in a different world,” Anthony told the Detroit Free Press’s Shawn D. Lewis. “That’s like total energy, ecstasy… It’s like a sponge. And you wring yourself out to drain yourself so that the people can absorb you.”
In 1993, Anthony led a march of 250,000 people in Detroit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of a similar demonstration led by the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. through the city in June of 1963. He became active in fundraising and relief efforts for the growing number of refugees of the Rwandan civil war. In 1995, Anthony was co-chair of the Detroit committee for the Million Man March.
In 1993, after a rather contentious election that pitted the old guard against a more progressive faction, Anthony was elected chair of the Detroit NAACP branch. The largest NAACP chapter in the United States since its founding in 1912—three years after national organization was chartered—the Detroit NAACP had a long, distinguished record of local activism and positive impact upon the city’s political scene. The contentious leadership battle in 1993, however, reflected certain latent divisions among the branch’s 51,000 members. Anthony ran against the handpicked successor to the branch’s esteemed outgoing president. Anthony’s supporters urged members to cast their votes for him based on his extensive record of achievement within the city of Detroit, and felt that the NAACP needed to take on a more active, outspoken role in the city.
More conservative members of the NAACP worried that Anthony was perhaps too militant, and might alienate corporate donors. As pastor of Fellowship Chapel, he once turned down a 10,000 grant to his church from the parent company of a large Detroit-area department store that had no stores left within the city. Despite these reservations, Anthony won the election. His success as NAACP chairman was resoundingly affirmed when he continued to be re-elected chairman every two years, often by wide margins.
Not surprisingly, Anthony was impervious to criticism that the NAACP had grown moribund in recent years. “People often want to belittle, criticize and denigrate, but I say take a look at yourself,” Anthony told the Detroit Free Press. “If you don’t like the NAACP, join SCLC ]Southern Christian Leadership Conference]. If you don’t like that, join your local church. If you don’t like that, join the Girl Scouts. Just join something! There is enough hell burning in Detroit for everybody to get their own individual bucket and put out a fire.”
Under Anthony’s leadership, the Detroit branch of the NAACP began an important “Buy in Detroit” campaign to promote economic activity within the city. He also played a crucial role in negotiating a settlement with the state’s largest insurer, the American Automobile Association, over an NAACP suit that charged bias in its setting of insurance rates for Detroiters. Anthony also became active in calling for minority ownership in the city’s planned casinos after voters approved a gambling referendum in the mid-1990s. He received national attention in 1998 when he was arrested in a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. The demonstration was ignited by the Supreme Court’s failure to hire African American law clerks during a two-year span. “For how long can the court judge diversity and equity,” Anthony told the Detroit Free Press, “if in fact it lacks the diversity and equity it claims to judge?”
Detroit Free Press, January 6, 1991, p. 1F; June 20, 1993, p. 12; November 7, 1994, p. A1; October 20, 1999.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the Detroit Branch NAACP.