A Former Child Evangelist Wins a Supreme Court Fight Against Prayer in Public Schools
06/24/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 early this month against an Alabama statute authorizing teachers to encourage prayer in the public schools, it ended not only the state's unconstitutional law but also the peace and quiet of Ishmael Jaffree. "My day just got unbelievable," remembers Jaffree, 41, a Mobile Legal Services Corporation lawyer. "I couldn't return an eighth of the phone calls I got. It was just too much. Someone even called to ask for the movie rights to my story!"
It's quite a tale, for Jaffree is an extraordinary man who started a national flap by posing an ordinary question. "What's going on in school?" he asked his son Chioke, then 5, three years ago. The boy started to repeat a prayer often recited in his class by the teacher. Jaffree, an agnostic, whose wife, Mozelle, is a member of the Bahai faith, was incredulous. He felt that the schools were destroying the constitutional separation of church and state while undermining his efforts to raise his children as "free thinkers."
When his protests were ignored, Jaffree and his lawyer, Ronnie Williams, 32, filed suit in federal district court in May 1982. Then Alabama Gov. Fob James seized on the complaint, calling a special session of the state legislature to pass a bill (including a prayer written by the governor's son) authorizing prayers in the public schools. The governor's intervention also unleashed public anger against Jaffree. His children were harassed at school, and, he recalls, "We started getting all kinds of nasty letters, threatening phone calls, eggs thrown at my windows, air let out of my tires."
While resolving the issue in Jaffree's favor, the Supreme Court noted that Alabama's 1981 law specifically called for "voluntary prayer" during the daily moment of silence in the state's schools. The court said that was an "endorsement and promotion of prayer" by the state inconsistent with the "established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion." (Nevertheless, observers feel the Supreme Court would let stand other state moment-of-silence laws that do not require the time to be used for prayer.) Jaffree was overjoyed. "The Constitution is one of the greatest creations of man," he says. "It is a bulwark designed to protect the rights of the individual against the overpowering will of the majority." The story of Jaffree's life shows how, to a man such as he, that principle can become a matter of the gravest urgency.
He was born two months prematurely in a Cleveland home for unwed mothers and named Frederick Hobbs. "I never knew my father," he says. "My mother did domestic work for white people. She made $30 a week. My clothes came from secondhand stores and our diet was wieners and pork and beans." His mother was very religious, and it is one of the ironies of Jaffree v. the Mobile, Ala. Board of Education that Jaffree began his life as a child evangelist on Cleveland street corners, exhorting sinners to get right with God. "My mother told me that my father had died while she was carrying me. The old people in my neighborhood believed that when that happened, you were blessed—marked for some significant purpose."
Jaffree was a timid child who managed to maintain his Christian ideals by aligning himself with neighborhood toughs. By the time he was 10, however, he had strayed: He was stealing merchandise from department stores with his buddies. He got caught taking a machete from a truck and was sent for the first time to a juvenile detention home. By his 11th birthday he had joined a gang, again largely to protect himself. He subsequently was judged a juvenile delinquent and served an eight-month sentence in an Ohio institution.
Back in circulation he was impressed by the reigning royalty of the ghetto: the pimp. "If you wanted to be anything in the black community then, you became a pimp. I couldn't do that. I still had thoughts of becoming a minister." He did, however, mimic the pimps' appearance: He had his hair "processed," affected the "continental" pants they favored and managed to get himself expelled from school.
In 1964, wanting "to make something of my life," Jaffree returned to school through a work-study program. The next year he enrolled in Cuyahoga Community Junior College. "The first quarter I made three D's and one C," he says. "The counselor told me I would have to start doing better. Then I made three C's and a D and slowly worked up to two B's and two A's."
Graduating in 1968, he went on to Cleveland State University and new ideas. "I had a professor who was an atheist. That was the first black I'd ever seen who was an atheist. It made me angry because I thought they all lived in Russia. I thought, 'How can you turn your back on the very God who put breath in your body?' But my views started gradually changing. I started considering myself an Existentialist. I no longer believed the Christian faith was the faith and that Jesus Christ had blue eyes and white skin."
During the '60s Jaffree also took a black consciousness course. He worked for Cleveland's black mayor-to-be Carl Stokes and started moving away from Martin Luther King Jr. toward Malcolm X. He was determined to go to law school, but didn't have the board scores to get in. He mounted a protest, saying that Cleveland-Marshall College of Law was laggard when it came to integration. As a result the school started a program for "disadvantaged youth" and took him in its first class.
In 1972 he added the finishing touch to his creation of what was virtually a new self: He changed his name to Ishmael Jaffree. "Most black people's names came from former slave owners," he explains. "I rejected the slave-master path. Ishmael means outcast. The last name, Jaffree, came from a Cleveland State professor whom I admired." The newly constituted Jaffree met Mozelle Hurst in 1974 and married her early the following year, shortly after finishing law school. Mozelle had gone to Alabama A&M in Normal, so they went south, moving to Mobile in 1977.
One day last week the Jaffrees fixed a picnic for their children at a park near their working-class neighborhood in Mobile. As Mozelle, 38, held 2-month-old Layla in her lap, and their five other children played nearby, Ishmael noted that the Supreme Court ruling was "not the end of the school prayer issue." There is a strong conservative movement for a Constitutional amendment to permit vocal prayer in the public schools. Jaffree dipped momentarily into sarcasm. "They want to bring back the good old days when teachers were leading the students in prayers of their choice, not the students', the days when students were obedient and polite, the days that produced people like me: good Christians all." He grew serious, talked about what it was like being in the Supreme Court. "Everything was so solemn, so quiet and organized. It was like a church. But unlike a church, there was give and take on both sides. I guess what it comes down to is I never wanted to sacrifice my individuality, my inquiring mind, never wanted to accept something on authority. I guess my bringing this case was a natural, considering everything that has happened to me."