John James Jr. knows what it’s like to be poor, to be hungry, to have no male role models. He understands how young men in those circumstances can veer off course. He also knows that there is a better path than the crime and violence that sometimes follows.
As the spokesman for Take Back Pine Bluff, a movement aimed at combatting the violent loss of life in the city, James is trying to make a difference for his community — and for the young men who grow up in circumstances similar to his own.
A 33-year old Pine Bluff native, James was raised along with his sister in a single-parent home. He remembers days of going without food, wearing worn-out clothing, and at times, having no utilities in the home. After graduating from Dollarway High School in May 2000, James immediately left home to join the Marine Corps.
“I had never been anywhere out of the state and hardly out of Pine Bluff,” James said.
That changed during James’ time in the military, where he served as an aviation ordnance technician and a Marine security guard. His eigh-year military career, which started in North Carolina, took him to far-away places: Hawaii, Japan and Kuwait the first four years; Tunisia, Zambia and Trinidad &Tobago the next four years.
James said he was on a military march one day, when he suddenly smelled something strange. Going around a turn, he came face to face with the ocean.
“It was amazing to me; many people may have seen the ocean hundreds of times, but I never did,” he said.
James said he was so stunned he stood there dead in his tracks until the platoon leader, repeatedly calling his name, finally got his attention.
“I put some seashells in an envelope and sent them home to my mother,” he said.
After his military tour, James returned home with new life-experiences, but did not forget his humble beginnings.
“It shaped my thinking and my perspective on what organizations, government and religion should do.” James said.”You have to be involved.”
Demonstrating a desire to reach out, he begin working with AmeriCorps VISTA, a national and community service program established to fight poverty in America. Through AmeriCorps, he worked two years at Our House Inc., a homeless shelter for the working poor.
While working to help other communities, James grew increasingly concerned about the number of violent deaths in Pine Bluff. After getting an idea from a friend, James spearheaded Taking Back Pine Bluff, a movement that he says is best described as an idea. The movement began in November 2011.
TBPB, James said, “is an idea that says influence is more powerful than money, is more powerful than our own desires, is more powerful than the negativity we face in our community.The idea of TBPB is to exert an equal and opposite influence through community rallies, events and building community through relationships.”
James said people shouldn’t look at TBPB as a man, an organization or a group because that will hinder adapting the idea. Instead, he wants to see others — whether they call themselves TBPB or not — begin to push back against negative influences.
James believes great dreams and visions of the past have suffered because people focused on the man instead of the mission.
“If you look at the man, you start looking at his flaws and miss the idea,” he said.
James said that in some ways there is little difference between him and the young men who are taking lives on our streets today,
“The same anger that is in them is in me,” he said. “I don’t make any excuse for a murderer; they certainly are not forced to commit these heinous crimes — but we are the sum of our experience. The environment of poverty,dilapidated communities, the lack of exposure to cultural things — the arts — and poor education is exerting an influence on the minds of our young people.”
James said as a child he would sometimes get dressed in the dark before hurrying to get to school to eat breakfast. He had not eaten since his last meal at school the previous day.
He said at home he didn’t know he was any different than anybody else.
“At school I saw that everybody didn’t live like I did, everybody didn’t have holes in their shoes,” he said. “I would hear talk about what they ate or what they did on vacation, all the time thinking … I never went on a vacation. The anger starts to enter. And there is no role model there to explain — or other bitter people explain it out of their own hurt. You get a distorted message on how the world is.There is no man there to tell you that clothes and shoes don’t make the man. Envy and jealousy sets in.”
In the absence of strong male role models, most of James’ guidance came from books written by people he came to admire.
“I found an outlet through education. I can articulate,” James said. That doesn’t make me better; it makes me responsible.”
James, who also volunteers with the Red Cross, sees TBPB as a way to turn the tide on crime. Members are restructuring and making plans to be more effective in 2014.
“We didn’t do all we intended this year, because we lacked funds,” he said.
James, who will soon receive a bachelor’s degree in business finance from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said TBPB will start a capital campaign in March and hopes to secure a building.
“We want to plant seeds of social development,” he said.