John Jenkins: Mayor of Maine book release! PRINT Bookstore, Portland, Maine: April 25th, 7 pm. More information to follow…

If you enjoyed reading Go by Boat and Island Medicine, take a peek at the first chapter of

John Jenkins: Mayor of Maine.  

By Dr. Chuck Radis


Chapter 1 

     On March 27, 1968, fifteen-year-old Student Council President, John Jenkins, introduced Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at an assembly at South Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. King was on his way to march in solidarity with sanitation workers in Memphis but made time in his busy schedule to meet with the students. One week later, Dr. King was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel preparing to speak to Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleagues. At his funeral, Morehouse College president, Benjamin Mays, delivered the eulogy, and mused that King “would probably say that, if death had to come, I am sure there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors.” 

     The death of Dr. King had a profound effect on John Jenkins. Like many young men and women at South Side High School, his anger and frustration with racial injustice was at a boiling point. The previous summer, the city of Newark had erupted with the arrest of an African American cab driver by two white policemen when he drove his taxi around a police car and double-parked on 15th Avenue. During the brutal arrest, the driver suffered multiple injuries, but it was not until local civil rights leaders were allowed to see him in his holding cell, and saw the full extent of his injuries, that he was transferred to a nearby hospital for treatment.

     The arrest and injuries of the cab driver fit an all too familiar pattern of police brutality. That evening, an angry crowd gathered across the street from the police precinct. Although local leaders urged the crowd to protest peacefully, a resident grabbed a bullhorn and spurred the crowd to action. Over the course of three days and nights, the city erupted in pent-up fury as fires and looting raged. The National Guard and State Police were called in. Before it was over, 26 people had died, and more than 700 had been injured.   

     On the eve of the riots, Newark had become one of the first Black-majority American cities but remained under the control of white politicians. Property taxes were high, and a steady stream of white Newark residents were fleeing to the suburbs where Blacks were often unable to obtain mortgages. The city was steadily losing population from its peak of 438,000 in 1950 to 381,000 in 1970. Infant and maternal mortality rates were the second highest in the nation. The school system was in disarray, placing it near the bottom of the State’s ranking system. Racial profiling, redlining, and lack of equal opportunity in education, training, and jobs led the city’s African American residents to feel powerless and disenfranchised.

     It’s not surprising that Reverend Martin Luther King’s speech at South Side high school with its emphasis on education and non-violent protest, was met with a mixed reception. Years later, Jenkins remembered, “Reverend King said if someone strikes you, turn the other cheek. And back then, I would say ‘yeah, you hit me and it’s on.’” The words of activist Malcolm X, “Burn baby! Burn!” resonated with many in the Black community and became the mantra of those who argued the only way for Blacks to achieve equality in America was to set fire to the bonds of Black suppression. For a young Black man or woman, the choice between Malcolm X’s and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s vision for the future was a difficult one. 

     This struggle for identity eventually played out on the local level. Following King’s assassination, a number of high schools around the nation were renamed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. In Newark, Southside High School was renamed Malcolm X Shabazz High for the fiery former Nation of Islam leader several years after Jenkins graduated.

     At the age of fifteen, John Jenkins was at a crossroads. He could follow the teachings of Malcolm X; he could join a gang and descend into a life of hopelessness, violence, and anger; or he could find an alternative way forward. Dr. King’s response to “Burn! Baby! Burn!” was to tell his high school audience, “Learn! Baby, Learn!” Hearing the phrase made a life-long impact on Jenkins. He later reflected, “Before he (King) spoke, I was more burn, baby, burn, but after, his message inspired me to have a dream worth working to achieve.”

     Who would have predicted that Jenkins’ dream would bring him to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, a state with the lowest percentage of minorities in the nation? It was at Bates College that John Jenkins came under the mentorship of Bates alumnus, Benjamin Mays, who had delivered Reverend King’s eulogy, and was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. It was in Maine that John Jenkins set down roots, made life-long friendships, successfully ran for office, and honed his unique brand of inspirational PepTalks that transformed the lives of so many he touched.  

      John Theodore Jenkins was born in Newark, New Jersey, on May 29, 1952. He was the middle child of Jane and John Jenkins Sr., and spent his formative years in a modest apartment building at 167 Johnson Avenue in a mixed neighborhood of Irish, Portuguese, and Italian immigrants. His grandparents lived upstairs, and several aunts and uncles were in nearby apartments. In the living room of the Jenkins apartment was a photo of an old man, a relative who had once been a slave. According to family lore, another uncle in the deep South had agitated for the right to vote. “They tarred and feathered him,” Jenkins later recalled in an interview with Bill Nemitz at the Portland Press Herald. “They wanted to send a message.”

     His father, John Jenkins Sr., was a Deacon in the nearby Baptist Church and prone to violence. In later years, Jenkins had little to say about his father. In an interview with Joshua Shea in the Lewiston Auburn Magazine in 2010, he summarized his relationship with the man by saying: “He was not consistently present in my life.” His older sister, Mujiba, recalled a darker side to their parents’ relationship. On one occasion, their mother was beaten so severely by their father that she was taken to the hospital. It was after this, that they divorced. Jenkins was seven years old.

      Mujiba believed that witnessing the beatings had a profound effect on Teddy (John’s family nickname). “He didn’t want to end up like his dad.”

      His mother, Jane, also a Baptist, strove to instill in all of the Jenkins children a strict moral code. She recognized the critical importance of keeping her children engaged and off the streets, particularly during the long, hot summers when school was not in session. As Jenkins later recalled, “I was raised by a loving and totally committed single mother of faith…(and) her faith literally was my life’s salvation until I learned how to believe on my own.” His mother enrolled him in his first Karate class at age 10. He joined the Boy Scouts. “My mother didn’t know anything about those two programs. The only thing she heard was the magic word—discipline.”

     In Newark, violence and tragedy were never far away. Reflecting on his childhood, Jenkins said, “One day I remember hanging out on a street corner with one of my friends. I had some place to go to, a scouting meeting or something, and I left him. A minute after I left, my friend got caught in the middle of some dispute he wasn’t a part of and was killed. I just knew if it wasn’t for those organized activities, it could have been me. In the neighborhood, money got you respect, because it got you the newest and the best stuff. You saw the gangsters with the cars and the jewelry. If not for my mother and a few honorable men who stepped up to the plate and unknowingly became my male role models, it would have been easy to fall into that life.”

     The young Jenkins was curious, outrageously funny, athletic, and accident prone. At 11, he injured himself falling out of bed. Another time, he wandered into a clump of bushes, and was stung by a swarm of bees so severely he was admitted to the hospital for treatment. His sister Mujiba recalled, “He was like a cat with nine lives.”

     There is no simple explanation for why one young man hangs out on the corner while another embraces the challenges and high expectations of Scouting or the martial arts. Not every scouting troop or martial arts class has the right mix of leadership, concern, and high expectations to keep a young man engaged. Sometimes, life moves forward with the simple act of showing up. John showed up. In a Lewiston Sun Journal interview in 2015, Jenkins said that Scouting introduced him to the outdoors. Karate fine-tuned his body and mind. Both gave him something to focus on and excel at other than roaming the streets of Newark.

     Recalling one of his earliest experiences with karate, Jenkins watched as a group of students began doing kata forms. “Suddenly, I saw this group of people all moving in unison. No one was showing each other how to make that next step. It was as if they had one mind. I had never seen, en masse, a group of people look [in] the same direction and make the next move. I was like, how did they do that? My mouth stopped running, and my eyes and ears opened.”  Jenkins pored over karate magazines and began to dream. In his high school yearbook, he wrote, “Someday, I want to be a world champion.” It was not a casual comment. The high expectations of his mentors and his inner drive spurred his progress, step by step, towards greater mastery of the martial arts.      

     He rejected the temptation and camaraderie of a tight-knit gang as a substitute for family. His mother and siblings and extended family, along with his success and acceptance in the world of scouting and the martial arts, provided him with the emotional support he sorely needed as a young man. “I realized that maybe these activities were keeping me alive. There was always more to learn. I was able to physically do things because of the training. I saw the benefits immediately. I was thinking more clearly. I had a better sense of how to gauge difficult situations and difficult people. I no longer felt the need to run away.”    

     His new-found prowess was rarely expressed in fighting outside the confines of the dojo. As his confidence grew on the streets of Newark, Jenkins began to explore alternatives to violence by de-escalating everyday confrontations with self-deprecating humor and deflection. “Timing, patience, and focus; all those things in your training in the martial arts, gets applied to daily social interactions,” he later recalled. “It’s the living arts.”

     Throughout his adolescence, his mother worked multiple jobs to sustain the family. One summer, his mother helped him land a job at a factory in Bellville, New Jersey, where grocery store smocks were repaired and cleaned. “My mother was in charge of a giant steam presser machine and maybe in the winter it wasn’t bad, but in the summer, it was unbearable. On day one, I wimped out and I quit. I couldn’t take it. It’s just one of the jobs she had at the time.”

     “Once, in my early teen years, I remember complaining to my mom how I desperately needed her to purchase me a fashionable knit shirt. She said that she would love to buy me that shirt, but times were tough, and we could barely afford the next rent payment. I said, I’m sick and tired of being poor. She sighed and shook her head slowly before replying. ‘Son, it is true our current finances are limited. Yes, we do live in some challenging conditions. But you must come to know that we are not poor. Poor is an attitude. If you ‘think’ you are that, then you will always be that.’

     And then her final magic statement: ‘Learn to see beyond your circumstances.’’

     His mother, Jane, understood that Scouts and the martial arts would take her young son only so far unless he also excelled in his studies. Although South Side High School at one time had an excellent academic reputation — graduating future New York City Mayor Ed Koch, by the time Jenkins attended, academic expectations had declined. Even so, John Jenkins’ goal from an early age was to become a doctor.  

     In 1967, months after Reverend King was assassinated, Mrs. Jenkins, with the help of church connections, arranged for her 16-year-old son to attend Princeton University’s Cooperative Summer School program, designed to expose students from disadvantaged backgrounds to post-secondary education. The following summer, he was accepted into an Upward Bound Trio Program in Lowell, Massachusetts. The experiences shaped and molded his natural ability to connect with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and honed the leadership qualities he had already shown glimpses of as Student Council President.  

     The two programs expanded his world even as the quality of his South Side High School public education went into free-fall. In 1970, Jenkins’ senior year, Southside was closed for three weeks due to teachers’ strikes. This gap barely scratched the surface of what was actually happening in the classroom. Frequent teacher absences and slow-downs, picket lines, and violence, both inside and outside of South Side, were a part of Jenkins every-day school experience. At a time when college preparatory classes such as algebra, pre-calculus, and chemistry should have been laying the foundation for college success, education in Newark came to a grinding halt. The Teachers Union grievances were legitimate; they struck for better pay and a voice in the curriculum. However, the timing of the strikes could not have come at a worse time for Jenkins.

     As a result of the strikes, almost two hundred teachers were arrested and jailed (8). In what may have been John Jenkins first act of civil disobedience, he organized a sit-in at the School Superintendent’s office in Newark to draw attention to the real victims in the struggle between the Teachers Union and the city of Newark: the students. The local police were called to remove the demonstrators, but they did not voluntarily leave the office. The police then bound the demonstrator’s wrists and dragged them from the building by their ankles–down the steps of the four-story building.  

     Through his success at the summer programs at Princeton and the Upward Bound Program in Lowell, Massachusetts, a growing number of colleges were aware of John Jenkins. He had demonstrated leadership at South Side High School through his presidency of the student council. Karate had transformed his five-foot-nine frame into a muscular, 200-pound Black Hercules. He was a running back on a football team that had sent several players on to the NFL. According to his close friend, Ren Halverson, who later trained and competed with John in karate, Jenkins had several offers to play football at Division 1 schools. Halverson remarked, “His leg drive from those thighs of his reminded me of a thoroughbred breaking out of the starting gate. The shoulder pads I thought I saw the first day in Portland (Maine) warming up, were his shoulders. Massive chest, no fat, you get the picture”  

     Bates College Black alumni, brothers David and Nate Boone, became aware of Jenkins, perhaps through Roscoe Lee, another South Side high school graduate who was enrolled at Bates. The Boone brothers often recruited students for Bates and demonstrated a sincere interest in Jenkins, often attending his athletic events. They arranged a meeting with Milt Lindholm, the Dean of Admissions at Bates, in New York City. Between his dream of becoming a doctor and his goal of becoming a world champion in karate, Jenkins must have made quite an impression.

     David Boone remembers the interview: “He was very confident about his abilities. He had the gift of gab and was jovial and outgoing. When we were done, it felt like you’d known him all your life. There were no airs.” At the conclusion of the interview, Dean Lindholm put together a financial package that would make admission to Bates College a reality. What was left unsaid, was the question of whether Jenkins could succeed at college level academics. Between the trauma of the Newark riots and the gaps in Jenkins’ education at South Side High School, there must have been concern that he lacked the foundation for a Bates College education.

     In typical understatement, Jenkins later recalled, “That was a gamble on their part.”

     David Boone remembers having no such reservations. “If Bates admitted him, I was confident he’d get through.”   

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