The Rev. Willie Wilson called me up a last month to complain about a column where I described his boycott of an Asian shopkeeper in his neighborhood. I wrote that the market owner had "supposedly disrespected" an African-American customer, who he had "suspected of stealing."
Wilson wanted to set me straight. The longtime leader of Anacostia's Union Temple Baptist Church said the shopkeeper had brandished a pistol at an elderly woman, for no good reason. He said she had suffered a heart attack and successfully sued the market owner.
So, there. I stand corrected. The disrespect was real and apparently unwarranted.
What Wilson did not dispute was his comments about the shopkeeper. At one of the boycott gatherings, in the presence of the press, Wilson said that if he and his followers had not forgiven the shopkeeper "we would have cut his head off and rolled it down the street."
That unpleasant episode took place in 1986. Racial tensions were high. Crime was out of control, especially in Willie Wilson's neighborhood. The District recorded 194 murders that year, on its way to the high of 482 five years later. Drug gangs controlled the streets of Anacostia. Cocaine was king.
Wilson voiced the frustrations of his followers from his pulpit, in front of the magnificent, floor to high ceiling Black Nationalist mural of Martin and Malcolm, Rosa and Frederick Douglass, among others. He also preached the politics of victimization and played the race card. Who can forget Willie Wilson rousing up racial hatred on the lawn by the federal courthouse in the summer of 1990, when Marion Barry was on trial on cocaine charges?
Now Wilson and the Rev. Graylan Hagler are coming to the defense of Mayor Vince Gray. They have asked "sisters and brothers" to meet on Wednesday morning in front of the Wilson Building "to demand that premature calls for the mayor's resignation cease."
I am on board with the ministers. People across town have suggested Gray voluntarily step down, because federal prosecutors have discovered that his 2010 mayoral campaign was riddled with corruption. The most damning revelation concerns $653,000 in funds delivered to his campaign off the books, as in illegally. Hearing that, three council members recommended Gray resign.
Wilson and Hagler have a point. Until the feds finger Gray, I see no reason why he should step down.
But Hagler has insinuated that Gray is being harassed because he is black. Two of the council members who called for Gray to quit are white. Willie Wilson will have a hard time keeping his race card in his hand.
But times have changed since Joe diGenova and Jay Stephens investigated and prosecuted Marion Barry for snorting cocaine, among other things. Both U.S. attorneys happened to be white. Now the chain of prosecutorial command -- from U.S. Attorney Ron Machen Jr. through Attorney General Eric Holder to President Obama -- is African-American.
"There's no racial conspiracy floating in the District of Columbia," former D.C. police lieutenant Lowell Duckett tells me. "That's gone."
If Wilson and Hagler preach racial disharmony, their legitimacy will be gone, too.
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.