Countercultural Courage

Qualls decided in high school he didn’t want to become a casualty of a broken home. But it wasn’t until he started dating Sheila that he saw up-close the true blessings of an intact family. Qualls watched Sheila’s father—a former sergeant major in the Army—sit quietly in his chair reading the Bible, then work demanding rotating shifts at a Goodyear plant. Qualls began attending church with the family. In 1986, Qualls and Sheila married, after he became a first-generation college graduate and entered active military service. Eventually, they had five children, one of whom is adopted. 

She says she heard constant lies from Democratic politicians, and they made her angry: “Stop telling me how oppressed I am. That’s not my experience or my parents’. This country gave me many opportunities.”

Five-year-old Kendall Qualls stepped off a city bus onto the streets of Harlem with his weary mom and four siblings. It was still daylight, but he was worn out, too. Kendall clung to the suitcase he had lugged from Fort Campbell, Ky., on the Greyhound bus that rolled into the city just a few hours earlier. He thought about his dad back at the Army base. He didn’t know why, but his parents had divorced. Now, his mom was leading Kendall and his siblings along the last stretch: the garbage-strewn sidewalks of a towering tenement project, to his grandparents’ apartment.

Suddenly, a tall man blocked their path and demanded Kendall’s mom give him money. As she pleaded with him, another man moved out of the shadows and warned she’d better hand it over. Unsure what to do, Kendall could only watch his mother cry. Even today, he remembers thinking in that moment: “I’m never going to be like those men.”

It was the first time Kendall Qualls understood the life he didn’t want. It would take a few more years to figure out what kind of life he did want: one in which he would never again be—or even consider himself—a victim.

Today, Qualls has achieved that vision and is working to make it a reality for others. As the founder of the Minnesota nonprofit TakeCharge, he’s building a national network of like-minded people—he calls them ambassadors—to dispel what he considers the false narratives of systemic racism and white privilege. His goal: to create coalitions that help restore the black community to its pre–War on Poverty self-reliance and productivity.

TakeCharge focuses on three foundational areas Qualls believes must be revived: faith, family, and education. Qualls, 60, and his wife Sheila want minorities in particular to understand that American free enterprise rewards industriousness and merit, while generational entitlement programs—along with blaming others—destroy a people and a country.

Living in the housing-project squalor of New York City in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Qualls usually hiked up 10 floors to get to the family’s apartment since the elevator rarely worked. In the stairwell, the stench of urine assaulted him. He then stepped around addicts shooting heroin or passed out in shadowy hallways where they’d knocked out the lights. But there’s another scent lodged in his memory, a better one: When he opened his apartment door, the fresh scent of Pine-Sol wafted out.

His mom never got a high school education or a driver’s license, but she kept their two-bedroom apartment spotless. She spread a plastic checkerboard tablecloth under every meal. She told Qualls daily, “I love you, and God loves you.” From his mother, he learned compassion, love, and a moral code rooted in the Ten Commandments. But from the housing projects, he learned men don’t care for their families.

In the 1960s, nearly 80 percent of black families had two parents. But by 2015, nearly 80 percent were fatherless. Today, urban areas are the worst. In Minneapolis, for example, nearly 90 percent of black families don’t have a father in the home.

“We do not have a systemic race problem in America,” Qualls says emphatically. “We have a fatherless home problem.”

He adds that black culture was once rooted in the Christian faith. Men worked hard to provide for families, which in turn sought better education for their children.

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