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Rev. Eugene Rivers courts controversy, stays in media spotlight

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Rev. Eugene Rivers courts controversy, stays in media spotlight
The Rev. Eugene Rivers courted controversy last week when he pressured a state contractor to do business with minority contractors. (Photo: Banner Photo)

Fifteen years ago, the Rev. Eugene Rivers was at the height of his influence with his face on the cover of Newsweek magazine, his frequent critiques of Boston’s black political and religious readers appearing frequently in the pages of the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald.

At the peak of his powers, Rivers raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable contributions for his nonprofit Ella J. Baker House, controlled a formidable block of summer jobs for the city’s youth and enjoyed a steady flow of state and federal dollars for his anti-crime initiatives.

For many, it may be hard to square the ‘90s version of Gene Rivers with the contemporary minister, now taking a drubbing for his apparent bid to shake down a state contractor, Keolis North America, for $105,000. In the ‘90s, Rivers was tapped into the corridors of power in influence. Compared to the high-rolling Rivers of the last decade, today’s version appears as if he’s fishing for loose coins under couch cushions.

His bizarre self-description as a “secret ops” player capable of making life difficult for Keolis officials, who scored a $2.6 billion contract to run the MBTA’s commuter rail service reads like a desperate play for chump change.

That Rivers was able to become the most visible minister in the city in the 1990s, despite having a congregation numbering in the single digits, is a testament to both his quick wit and street smarts and the city’s white mainstream media’s thirst for controversy.

Rivers’ meteoric rise to prominence began in 1994 with an attack on Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, whom Rivers denounced for allegedly playing a role in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X. The Boston media ran with the story. Months later, Rivers followed up with allegations in the press that local Nation of Islam Minister Don Muhammad, a former friend, threatened him.

It was at that time that the spigots of charitable giving in Boston opened up for Rivers. In 1996, Rivers told reporters from the Banner and Globe that he had secured more than $200,000 in funds from local Jewish organizations for the redevelopment of a Dorchester building he established as the Ella J. Baker House, a community center for troubled youths.

While Rivers served as executive director of the Baker House, funding was never an issue. Between 2000 and 2004, Rivers’ take in federal and state funds was reportedly $4 million, according to Boston Magazine.

Banking on a close relationship with the administration of then-mayor Thomas Menino, Rivers bragged to the Banner that he controlled more youth summer jobs than any black elected officials in Boston.

Although Rivers had negligible support in Boston’s black community — even in the Four Corners neighborhood where he lived and worked — he maintained a close relationship with the city’s mainstream media. Reporters and editors consistently gave air to his frequent attacks on black elected officials and black leadership in the business and nonprofit sectors, securing him space on the front pages.

To his admirers, Rivers was a media-savvy player who’s rapier wit skewered the city’s black establishment. A Boston Magazine headline lauded Rivers as a “hustler prophet.” To his critics, Rivers was a hired gun who parlayed his disdain for blacks into a career.

“He’s always skinning and grinning,” says political activist Louis Elisa, a former NAACP Boston Branch president. “That’s the role he plays.”

When local blacks have been critical of Rivers, the media has come to his defense.

In 1998, when the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts expelled Rivers from its board, apparently in retaliation for his attacks on blacks, including the organization’s then-director Joan Wallace Benjamin, a Globe editorial characterized Rivers as a “challenger of liberal orthodoxy” who, along with the reverends Jeffrey Brown and Ray Hammond “have brought real hope to minority communities.” The editorial, titled “Trying to bottle up Rivers,” went so far as to compare him to civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois.

As effective as Rivers was at grabbing headlines and funding, his penchant for attacking black leadership in Boston eventually took its toll on the Ten Point Coalition. Former coalition members Ray Hammond and Jeffrey Brown parted ways with Rivers, alleging in a 2006 Globe interview that Rivers directed street workers in his employ to physically threaten them.

That same year, Rivers severed his ties from the Baker House after allegations he ordered beatings of two men and urged a woman who was allegedly raped at the Dorchester nonprofit not to report the incident.

While Rivers has maintained a lower profile in recent years, his invectives against black politicians, civic leaders and blacks in general has not abated. And his access to the white-dominated mainstream media has remained strong.

Last year he made headlines with an endorsement of South Boston state Rep. Nick Collins, who was running against then-Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry in a special election for the First Suffolk Senate seat. Dorcena Forry won.

Later that year Rivers penned a heated front-page op-ed in the Boston Herald, blasting the city’s black community for failing to converge around a single mayoral candidate. Black support had been split between the candidacy of former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, nonprofit leader John Barros, former City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo and several white candidates.

Rather than fostering unity in Boston’s black community, Rivers’ broadside blew up in his face days later when he himself was forced to admit that he hadn’t voted in more than three decades.

Stung by revelations of political hypocrisy and disowned by his former allies in the TenPoint Coalition, Rivers seemed to have sunk to a new low.

“He should have been done at that point,” said political activist Elisa. “But right after that he was back on the front page of the Herald.”

And within days Rivers was on Fox 25, defending his record as a political activist, his non-existent voting record notwithstanding. And as recently as January he was back on Jim Braude and Margery Egan’s daily news show on WGBH, where Rivers has served as a paid guest.

Given Rivers’ remarkable ability to bounce back from scandal, and the mainstream media’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for his opinions, it’s impossible to say whether his latest rather bizarre episode will cut off his access to the airwaves. But it’s clear that Rivers has burned some of his few remaining bridges in the black community with his latest power play.

Black elected officials have been working on Keolis North America’s $2.6 billion contract to run the MBTA’s commuter rail service, working to ensure the firm meets the goals of 15 percent minority business enterprise participation all state contractors are required to meet.

As reported in the Globe, Rivers met with a Keolis representative and threatened to make the lives of the firm’s representatives very difficult, and told her he was “secret ops” before handing her an envelope with an invoice for $105,000 on stationary bearing the name of the DRM Advisory Group, a coalition of community activists who have been meeting with Keolis to negotiate minority participation.

Dorcena Forry said the controversy over the apparent shakedown has caused some consternation in her district.

“I’ve heard from constituents who called my office asking what was going on, who was this group,” she said. “We weren’t aware of these meetings. When people claim they represent the community, but people in the community are not aware of or engaged in the process, then they’re not working on behalf of the community.”

Yet as much as black Bostonians reject the notion of Rivers speaking for the black community, the Globe, in its continuing coverage of the controversy still refers to Rivers as a “prominent community leader,” whatever that means.