African American Studies
Interviewee: Reverend John L. Scott
Interviewer: Dr. Mark Naison
Date of Interview: March 3, 2006
Summarized by Sheina Ledesma
Reverend John L. Scott was a civil rights movement leader in the South and New York City. He has been the pastor of St. John’s Baptist Church in Harlem since the early 1970’s and remains a leader and community activist in the North Bronx where he has lived for the past thirty years. Reverend Scott was born in 1937 in a rural area of North Carolina called Delmar. He is one of six boys, including his twin brother, who were born to a family of farmers. His father’s family came from a long history of farmers and landowners, having owned land for six previous generations. Reverend Scott grew up during segregation and his town was very much a Jim Crow town. Schools, public transportation, restrooms, and restaurants were all segregated and even the local movie theatre was off limits to African Americans. Growing up, Reverend Scott’s family attended a little country church in his area. He always enjoyed going to church as a child and at the age of eighteen decided that he had received a calling for the ministry. In preparation of his career choice Reverend Scott first attended Bloomfield College, a Presbyterian School in Bloomfield, New Jersey. It was there that Reverend Scott was first introduced to Northern life, which he felt was much colder socially in comparison to the South. He then attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania; a seminary school Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also attended a few years prior.
Shortly after his graduation from Crozer in 1963, twenty-five year old Scott became pastor at one of the oldest black churches in North Carolina called New Ahoskie Baptist Church. While being a pastor in Ahoskie Reverend Scott began his involvement in the civil rights movement. Fueled by the segregation in schools and public transportation that still existed in North Carolina in spite of Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Ahoskie community pushed for desegregation through community organizations like The Better Citizens League, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Reverend Scott became very active in the community encouraging negotiations between the white and black communities and joining freedom rallies that were organized against events like the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing.
Knowing Scott’s involvement in the civil rights movement, a friend of his, Dr. Bill Jones, invited Scott to New York to help with Operation Breadbasket, an organization that fought to create employment opportunities for African Americans primarily in the bread industry but also in the garment and bottling industries. While with Operation Breadbasket Scott worked with other leaders in the community like Reverend Al Sharpton who at the time was a seventeen year old boy preacher from Brooklyn. Scott and others who headed Operation Breadbasket fought against discrimination by means of a four-step strategy that began with the effort of negotiation, if negotiation failed they would educate themselves on the facts of the situation, then they would demonstrate if further negotiation was not an option. Finally they worked towards reconciliation and agreement between both parties. One of Operation Breadbasket’s most notorious and national efforts was against A&P, which refused to recognize equality in employment. Scott and many others across New York City successfully boycotted and demonstrated against A&P and gained national support from then President Nixon.
In 1972 Scott decided to leave Operation Breadbasket and return to being a Pastor. Scott decided to take a position as Pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church, an integrated church in Brooklyn. However, after three weeks he decided that he was better suited for Harlem and so he once again moved from Emmanuel Baptist Church to St. John’s Baptist Church in Harlem. Located on Fish Avenue, St. John’s Baptist Church was a mixed congregation in a mixed neighborhood. At that time it was considered a safe and elite neighborhood for African Americans. Scott enjoyed the congregation and the neighborhood from the beginning. His wife, a Southerner, also enjoyed the congregation however, missed the old warmth of her Southern life.
During the late 1970’s things began to change on Fish Avenue. Heroin and marijuana began to seep into the neighborhood and Reverend Scott became dismayed by the amount of drug trafficking that was taking place steps away from his home and his church. Most of these drug dealers and lords were primarily a mixture of immigrants and native New Yorkers. They preyed on teenage boys to do their selling, which had a huge impact on the families in the community. After a drug related shooting occurred in front of his home, Reverend Scott decided it was time for him to take action and organize the religious leaders in his community. It was then that he and others organized the Clergy Coalition of the 47th Precinct, which is still active today. The coalition was made up of clergy members from diverse religious backgrounds, including those of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish communities. The coalition also sought the support of the police officers of the nearby 47th precinct. The coalition fought to improve the conditions and safety of the neighborhood by putting an end to the drug trafficking by increasing the amount of police patrol cars on the streets and enlisting neighborhood patrols to provide increased security. Another organization founded by leaders in Reverend Scott’s community to deal with a variety of issues, including drugs was the Fish Bay Block Association. As activism and community involvement increased in the area, crime and other issues diminished.
However, in other areas of New York City, like Harlem, drugs were becoming increasingly prevalent. In an effort to make a move to push drugs out of the streets of Harlem, Reverend Scott and other religious leaders organized the HIT: Harlem Initiative Together. Reverend Scott also participated in Adopt-a-Block, a program established to assist in keeping specific streets clean, and adopted St. Nicholas Place, a street rampant with drugs. Although Reverend Scott received support from the 47th precinct in the Bronx, the 30th police precinct in west Harlem was a different story. Dubbed the “Dirty 30”, the 30th precinct was filled with dirty cops who were unconcerned with the drug trafficking that was occurring in their neighborhood. Regardless of the unethical conduct and push back Reverend Scott experienced he continued his efforts to create a drug-free Harlem and witnessed the eventual dismissal of many corrupt officers of the 30th precinct.
Since the 1970’s Reverend Scott has been involved in many other programs and initiatives to help improve the lives of those who live in Harlem and in the Bronx. He has been involved with the organization of programs that encourage nutrition, employment training programs, and assistance in attaining a GED. His efforts are also visible in his home state of North Carolina where he worked to establish the People’s Program on Poverty that was cited by the Office of Economic Opportunity. Reverend Scott is still passionate about changing Harlem, the Bronx, and the world. He believes that young people today need to “rise up and build upon what we’ve left and not just be persons who go out for their own economic betterment without reaching back to the rising number of the working poor.” As for his previous work during the civil rights movement Reverend Scott remarked that it was really a Freedom Movement, not a civil rights movement. “We had freedom rallies, freedom marches, freedom speeches, freedom rides. The legislation labeled it Civil Rights, but to use it was a freedom fight.”
Scott, John L. March 3, 2006. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham.
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