By Billy Corriher
The children sat on the floor with their legs crossed, listening attentively to Reverend Charles Grant as he told them the story of Rosa Parks.
"This ride home, she is not budging for Jim Crow," Grant said to the children.
After his story, their teacher asked the children, "Who was Martin Luther King?" Little hands shot up.
"He was a civil rights leader," one child answered.
"He was a preacher," said another, to Grant's satisfaction.
"He marched," one child said.
"He had a dream," answered another.
Grant, 76, said the children in the Head Start program at Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Forest Park receive a "cultural enrichment," not just preparation for elementary school.
Head Start, which focuses on helping children from low-income families, is one of the programs administered by Grant's Community Services Authority, an agency that seeks to find ways to eradicate poverty in Clayton County.
"We have a multi-pronged approach to fighting poverty," he said, mentioning daycare programs, guidance in looking for a job, and helping the needy with home repairs or mortgage payments.
When parents come to Head Start, they get a needs assessment and many are referred to Grant's organization for help with more services, said Eme Nsuk, director of the Head Start program.
Nsuk said many parents who come to Head Start are homeless, and their children are automatically admitted.
"We have to give those children a head start," she said.
Grant has been in charge of the Community Services Authority for 38 years, as long as he's been the pastor of Mt. Welcome Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur. Grant said he became involved with the agency during the civil rights struggle.
"I can recall back when the Ford (assembly) plant opened? there were no jobs for minorities other than porters or janitors," he said.
Seeing so many other black people struggle to find good jobs prompted Grant to get involved with federal programs designed to help low-income people.
Grant was raised in Washington, D.C. by a single mother who always struggled to find a better job.
"She could never get anything other than domestic work," he said. "She aspired for more? but it just wasn't in the cards for her at the time."
After Grant grew up, his mother moved back to Clayton County to care for his ailing grandmother. But when his mother was also afflicted with cancer when he was 21 years old, he moved to Georgia to care for them both.
"I was kind of the breadwinner until they passed on," he said.
After graduating from Howard University with a degree in Business Administration, Grant said he went to seminary school.
"I had a knack for leading people," he said. "The ministry seemed like the logical way of dealing with the problems the county was facing."
Grant also became involved with voter registration drives as a way to help the black community.
"I told people there was a way to get involved where you don't have to be out in the streets marching," he said. "I tried to teach people that their vote counted."
Grant said he was considered a moderate among black community leaders during the polarized civil rights era.
"There was a difference in philosophy about how we wanted to get there," he said. "There was a time when I was considered too black for white folks and too white for black folks."
But Grant said that, with time, leaders in the black community realized the importance of voting.
"Eventually, people began to see that voting did make a difference," he said. "Politicians began to come around and ask for our vote."
Today, Grant said he still has problems convincing some black people of the significance of voting.
"You still have that evil ?my vote doesn't count' mentality,'" he said.
Through his work at the Community Service Authority, though, Grant said he helps teach people to break the cycle of poverty. And he said the Head Start program makes sure parents are involved with their child's education.
"Once these kids leave us? their parents will be accustomed to getting involved," he said. "They're taught how to be involved with decision-making."
Grant said his agency is all about teaching people to be self-reliant and lift themselves out of poverty.
"It's not just a handout," he said. "It's a hand up."