By TRISH CHOATE
He knew the railroad tracks in the Texas town he grew up in marked the color lines between black and white.
But no boundary could hold back the black youngster who was born in a two-room shack, played football on the concrete of the projects and makes laws today here as Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II.
Cleaver, who took a leading role at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last week, harbors no illusions about the discrimination of his youth in Wichita Falls, Texas.
But they were “some of the best days of my life, even though in those days, Wichita Falls was brutally segregated,” said the 62-year-old Missouri Democrat who was the first black mayor of Kansas City, Mo. “When I say brutal, it was brutal because we could not go west of the railroad tracks.”
A photograph of a ramshackle wooden house in Waxahachie, Texas, where the four Cleaver children were born hangs in Cleaver’s Capitol Hill office.
“Six people lived in there, two rooms,” he said.
His father, Lucky Cleaver, moved his family to Wichita Falls when his son was in the second grade.
“I was trying to better myself. That’s how I ended up in Wichita Falls,” said Lucky, in town from Wichita Falls to attend the breakfast.
Cleaver attended the black Booker T. Washington Elementary School and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Wichita Falls, serving as captain of the football team.
He and his sisters grew up alongside six boy cousins.
“Our parents have to be commended for bringing 10 kids out of abject poverty and having all 10 of them graduate from college,” he said. “They raised us with middle-class values, and, of course, we came from a family of ministers.”
Cleaver is an ordained Methodist minister, and his uncle, Leroy Cleaver, is a minister at a Wichita Falls church.
In 1963, Cleaver left Wichita Falls to go to school at Prairie View A&M.
“It was the agriculture and mechanical school for African-Americans,” he said. “And 45, just 45 miles away was Texas A&M.”
The bachelor’s degree in sociology he got from there, he never did anything with, he said. But with his master’s in divinity from St. Paul’s School of Theology in Missouri, he has served as a pastor for 33 years.
He still makes it back Sundays to Saint James United Methodist Church in Kansas City to serve as senior pastor.
David Wasserman, a political scholar at the Center for Politics in Virginia, said Cleaver came into Congress with a solid record from Kansas City politics.
First elected in 1979, Cleaver served 12 years on the City Council there before becoming a two-term mayor.
“He is clearly in these parts the best-known politician in Kansas City — clearly,” said Boris Ricks, a University of Missouri-Kansas City political-science professor whose specialties include black politics.
Cleaver is from the same tradition as civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., where politics and social justice intersect, Ricks said.
“I think he’s looked upon as someone who can build bridges,” Ricks said.
Cleaver just began his second term as a representative for what he said was “the overwhelmingly white” — 77 percent — 5th Congressional District of Missouri.
“I have the smallest number of African-Americans in any other district represented by an African-American in Congress,” he said.
The lawmaker is a regional whip, responsible for shepherding members from some Midwest states to vote “right,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has appointed him as the second member of the Select Committee on Environment and Global Warming, which is under construction.
Since his election in 2004, he has been the secretary at weekly House prayer meetings, according to a media statement from his office.
And he served as co-chairman at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 1 attended by President Bush, other top officials and an estimated 4,000 guests.
“I think all of us are informed by our religion or lack thereof,” Cleaver said. “And my religious priorities just happen to coincide, I think, with the role Congress plays in shaping the lives of our country.”
He doesn’t try to wear his religion on his sleeve or try to condemn anyone else or act in any way that could be seen as spiritually superior, he said.
“I do think that when I vote, I think in terms of: Is this the right thing to do?” he said.
“Does this parallel what I have learned all of my life in church and Sunday school and Bible reading and so forth?”
He doesn’t stand up on the floor of the House and pontificate about it, either.
He just votes the way he thinks is right.
(Trish Choate can be reached at choatet(at)shns.com.)