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C. Fraser Smith: Goodbye to one of last of Goon Squad

He fancied sharp clothes — good suits, elegant hats, two-toned wingtip shoes, all of which made an even greater stylistic statement since he was well over 6 feet tall.

The real flash came, though, not from Homer Favor’s wardrobe. It came from a mind that remained agile and focused and unsatisfied right up the end of his life. The former Morgan State University professor died Saturday at 88.

He thought of himself as blessed. He was attracted to ministers, men of learning and conscience and spirit. He became the partner of men with a passion for justice and for opportunity.

He was one of the last remaining members of the original Goon Squad, a dozen black men, most of them clergy, who took their ministry from the pulpit to the street.

They were determined to do more than sing and quote Scripture. They found ways to overcome the bad, old days, to make dramatic progress in a world in which black people were still shackled by discrimination and exclusion.

Their new mission led them into conflict with white political leaders who had to be educated. Lesson No. 1: The black vote is growing; the black voter will be served.

They knew they needed proof of their power. So they found candidates, learned to organize and to campaign.

“We electrified the community,” Favor said during an interview just after another Goon Squad member, the Rev. Vernon Dobson, died. “We rented street cars. We banged on doors. We had students from the high schools. From Coppin and Morgan. You could feel the electricity in the air. ‘Here comes that damned Goon Squad again,’ people said. It was a pejorative. We adopted that as a badge of honor.”

These were men, he said, “who had something to say and said it well. They were men who cared about something beyond themselves.”

Dobson, Favor said, was the classic man of God. When the Goon Squad bought him a somewhat stylish suit — with vents — Dobson had the vents sewn up. He refused to wear the shoes he was given. He was there to clothe others.

In his final days, Favor fretted that no one would remember what it had taken to break through. He spoke like a Holocaust survivor. Success would become the enemy of history, of memory and of belief. He had been a professor for 45 years, a man who helped invent urban studies, which he saw as a way to address “the hurt” in a systematic way.

Young kids today, he said, may only know of MLK Boulevard, the name of “a street that runs by my house.”

The poignancy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Favor said, has to be known to understand U.S. history and life itself. The Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, had it right, Favor said: “Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and honor those they have slain.”

As in many things, the conversation put him in mind of a story from the Bible. Here’s how Favor recalled it:

God, he said, was looking for the prophet Elijah.

“Come down from the mountain,” God said.

“I can’t,” said Elijah. “I’m the last of the just.”

“No, no,” said God. “I have 7,000 who never bent a knee to iniquity.” We may not see the potential for growth and for good in the world. But it’s usually there.

“I always believed in young people,” Favor said. “You can’t give up on these kids. We have to lift them up. You never know which one of them might take Martin’s place or Vernon’s place.”

Or Homer Favor’s place.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.