The Minister of Minstrelsy
In late February, inside a sterile conference hall at Washington's premier conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, a crowd of no more than seventy took off their snow-flecked coats and settled in for an afternoon with a group of speakers billed as "The New Black Vanguard." Perched on a platform above the audience, the speakers promptly launched a barrage of attacks on the civil rights establishment and "the entertainment-industrial complex." At first the audience seemed disengaged, even a bit overwhelmed by the cacophony of blustery rhetoric. Then the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson piped up. "W.E.B. Du Bois was a communist, socialist pig," Peterson crowed. A few of his fellow panelists blanched at his overheated language. But once the shock subsided, laughter rippled through the previously mute crowd, followed by vigorous applause.
It was vintage Peterson. Throughout his fifteen-year career as a right-wing evangelical minister, Peterson has never shied from bombastic assaults on targets ranging from civil rights leaders to liberal Democrats to undocumented immigrants. But while Peterson's strident style may be unique, with his extremist politics he is merely playing the role of front man for a murky, well-funded network of white nationalist activists and right-wing Beltway operatives. By deploying Peterson to gatherings like the Heritage event and into the media, this coterie of conservatives have been able to apply a bold veneer of blackness over the brand of bigotry they find increasingly inconvenient to espouse on their own. Peterson has no professional or political accomplishments to speak of, beyond directing a small inner-city aid ministry and hosting a radio show syndicated on a handful of AM stations across the country. To his sponsors, though, that's irrelevant; it is his immunity from charges of racism that matters.
A former welfare recipient and follower of Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson, Peterson says he experienced a political awakening fifteen years ago, when he simultaneously discovered Jesus and Ronald Reagan. "I was born a Democrat but I had no values; it was anything goes, whatever you want to do, and that came from the black leadership," Peterson told me. "But I finally started to examine it for myself and I realized the Democratic platform was an anti-God, anti-values, anti-American platform."
It was then that Peterson formed BOND, or Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, a faith-based nonprofit he now runs out of a ramshackle storefront in mid-city Los Angeles. Through BOND's counseling service and its boys' home, Peterson says, he teaches inner-city youth "that they're Americans, not African-Americans, and that they should start giving back to their country instead of complaining." But with a tiny staff and an annual budget just above $200,000--more than one-fourth of which it spent on rent in 2001, according to Guidestar.org, a group that tracks nonprofits--it's unclear how BOND could bring more than a handful of boyz in the hood to heel.
BOND's primary function seems to be to serve as a platform for Peterson's various publicity stunts. His flagship media event was "National Repudiation of Jesse Jackson Day," timed to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. If you're wondering why you never heard of this grassroots black backlash against America's most well-known living civil rights leader, you might not be as out of touch as you think: In its five-year life span (it was discontinued last year), Jesse Jackson's "repudiation" was not national (it was limited to a street corner outside Jackson's LA office), and it consisted almost exclusively of Peterson's friends, BOND employees, boys' home residents and small-fry demagogues like anti-immigrant border vigilante Glenn Spencer, who joined the crowd in 2004. Despite a lack of public interest, Peterson claimed to have gotten under Jackson's skin. On Sean Hannity's radio show in 2001, Peterson stated, "Sean, if anything happens to me I want you to make sure you turn this tape over to the authorities and have them look into Jesse Jackson's organization or anybody that's connected with him." (Only recently did Hannity admit that he "probably should have" disclosed his membership on BOND's board.) The day after Peterson's outburst, a NewsMax.com headline announced, "Civil Rights Leader Fears for Life After Jesse Jackson Confrontation." Peterson insists his campaign was successful, boasting in a recent Washington appearance that he "soundly repudiated" Jackson before moving on to his new targets: the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus.