Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The Rev. Charles Edward Becknell Sr. vividly remembers growing up Black in Hobbs, where he worked as a caddy at a county club, knowing he could never be a member.
“They wouldn’t even let me use the restroom,” says Becknell, 79. “I had to relieve myself in a ditch about 100 yards away from the club.”
Playing on the predominantly white Hobbs High School basketball team just as the modern civil rights era was beginning, Becknell and the other Black players were not allowed to stay in the same hotels as the white players during away games.
His ears still ring with the response from the president of the local school board after a lobbying effort to allow a Black female student to become a cheerleader: “He said as long as he was on that board, ‘no (N-word) will ever be a cheerleader.’ ”
Initially, Becknell didn’t give much thought to the indignities of segregation, reasoning “that’s the way it’s supposed to be, because that’s the way it was.” But as he got older, he challenged that and moved to effect change.
While still in high school, he helped organize the first Black sit-ins at Hobbs lunch counters and restaurants, and later he became a civil rights leader and an advocate for nonviolent social change.
As a result of Becknell’s years of experience as a clergyman, a local and national champion of civil rights, and someone who has spent time teaching in classrooms and working in government offices, he became intimately familiar with the myriad problems facing the Black community. He also formulated a number of ideas to address those issues and summarized them in a pamphlet.
That pamphlet, which points the way to accelerating social change and bolstering the Black middle class, is now being circulated by the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C.
Becknell has been active with the New Mexico Black Leadership Conference, the Black Coalition and the NAACP. He is state president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Martin Luther King Jr. was the first president of the organization.
While things are much better today for the African American community than when he was a child, Becknell says, there are still impediments to a strong Black middle class. His pamphlet, “The Road to Reconciliation and a Path to Reparations,” does not advocate writing a check to African Americans as recompense for centuries of slavery.
“We need to get beyond talk of how you’re going to pay us off, and shift the conversation to how to develop a strong Black middle class,” he says.
While some of the measures on his reparations road map are already taking place to some extent, what is required is a collective focus on those measures by the nation, he says. Recognizing that government cannot fund them entirely, additional buy-in must come from nonprofit foundations, corporations, businesses – even private citizens, Becknell says.
Among the items he says are essential for reconciliation and reparation are funding for Black students and Black colleges, and better terms for loans leading to Black homeownership and Black farm operations.
Becknell’s commitment to racial, economic and social equality for African Americans was greatly influenced by his spiritual commitment, he says, even if that wasn’t clear to him when he was a child attending Ebenezer Baptist Church in Hobbs.
“I tell people I had a drug problem growing up,” he jokes. “My mother drug me to Sunday school, she drug me to midmorning worship, she drug me to evening worship.”
With a basketball scholarship in hand, Becknell left Hobbs in 1960 for St. Joseph College, which later became the University of Albuquerque. “I said, ‘Free at last, free at last.’ I didn’t have to go to church anymore, but after a while it started bothering me. That wasn’t how I grew up, but I continued to live by the principles of the church.”
Becknell went on to get a bachelor’s degree in history and education, a master’s degree in secondary education from the University of Albuquerque and then a doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico in 1975.
In and around those milestones were stints as a physical education teacher with the Albuquerque Public Schools, a management trainee in California with Sears, Roebuck, founder and director of the African American Studies program at UNM, director of the Governor’s Council on Criminal Justice Planning under former Govs. Jerry Apodaca and Bruce King, and director of personnel services for the city of Albuquerque.
About 1986, Becknell found his way back into the brick and mortar confines of the church after meeting pastor W.C. Trotter at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Albuquerque. He felt at home there and became a deacon. In 1988 he became an ordained minister and took over the church’s pulpit after Trotter died.
He now delivers sermons at the Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Rio Rancho, where his son, Charles Becknell Jr., is the lead pastor.
Reflecting on the national holiday honoring King, Becknell says that not only were Black clergy members among the leaders of the civil rights movement, but much of the planning for marches and protests was done in churches.
“Those were the only buildings that Blacks owned and controlled, and where people would sing and pray and fortify themselves spiritually before going out on the streets,” he says.
Further, Becknell says, King believed that “education is the way to improving oneself and lifting society as a whole, and it’s one of the pathways to a strong Black middle class.”
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