Henry Allen Jr. spent his career in uniform, first in the Army where he fought in Desert Storm and reached the rank of Cavalry First Sergeant, and then in the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, where he was a patrol deputy.
He certainly looks the part: powerful in voice and body, with a gaze that always meets the eye.
With his working days behind him, Allen has set his sights on another kind of battle, one close to his heart. Last weekend, he was elected president of the Colorado Springs branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The position has long been held by Rosemary Harris Lytle, whose résumé includes writing for the Gazette and acting as spokesperson for the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. But after more than seven years leading the local effort, Lytle has become the NAACP state conference president representing Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.
Allen ran unopposed for the seat she gave up. Says Lytle: "There was pretty much consensus that he was the right person for this time."
She notes that Allen is a political independent who can reach across aisles, and has committed himself to the NAACP: As legal redress chair, he sorts through dozens of civil rights complaints that come in at both the local and state conference levels.
"He reminds me of myself in many ways," Lytle says, "a person who has a lot of professional experience, a lot of community contacts, and now has the time and the energy to devote to this passion that to him, goes all the way to growing up with a family that struggled in the South."
Indeed, the Arkansas native's passion is evident during our interview — he asks this (white) reporter repeatedly to join the NAACP, noting that the organization is open to people of all colors, sexual orientations and political persuasions. "As long as you believe in the civil rights of all people, you can be a part of the NAACP," he says. "It's not based on what the color of your skin is; it's what your belief is."
Indy: Let's talk about local government. I know you've said you believe the county, and particularly the sheriff's office, doesn't hire or promote enough minorities. Is the city any better?
HA: The city is a unique animal. I personally like Mayor [Steve] Bach, because he does take the time to sit down with minority leaders and listen. I'm fully aware that you can't do anything and everything that you want to. But if you portray to me that you have a willingness and a desire to include all citizens of the community in your agenda, then you've got my ear. County government, I don't feel rolls that way.
Indy: What about City Council redistricting, which looks like it will divide the minority community?
HA: I'm also a member of the Black/Latino Coalition, and we are in discussion with that now. I am concerned, again, with minorities losing their base with the redistricting. There are some things that I'm not prepared to discuss right now that we're working on.
Indy: I know the city clerk's office has been pretty resistant to taking advice on these things.
HA: Very, very. And I don't know the reason why. ...
The world of 'It's going to be done my way and nobody has anything to say about it' is over. That's not the world we're going to live in, and when I accept the responsibility of the president on 1 January, I am going to work hard to bring that group of people together to let government know that we're not going to sit back and be silent on anything. We're going to ask questions. We're going to get involved. They're not just going to horse-feed us anything.
Indy: Are there certain things you want to see happen in the next two years?
HA: I am going to extend my hand of friendship out to each level of government here, but I'm also going to say everybody needs to be included. And if I see that's not happening, I won't be bashful and quiet about it. I will speak out.
If you are supportive and you want to include all, then you have no better friend than the NAACP under my leadership. But if you're working toward ... suppressing, depressing folks, then you'll have real bad adversary in the NAACP, because I will call you out on it.
Indy: What do you think are the biggest issues facing minorities in this community?
HA: Unemployment, unemployment, unemployment. For the small amount of minorities that you have in this community, they carry the bulk of unemployment on their shoulders. ...
I've had a conversation [about hiring more minorities] with Mayor Bach about the public safety side of the house, the police department and the fire department. And I really believe that he has spoken to both chiefs, [Fire] Chief [Rich] Brown and [Police] Chief [Pete] Carey, and they are working diligently to correct that.
Indy: What else is going on?
HA: We are going to rebuild some committees. In fact, I'm going down to [the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs] this afternoon to speak to a couple of groups of folks that are in the political science side of the house ... I'm also going to speak to Pikes Peak Community College. I'm going to get the young people engaged in this community.
I was saying the other day, I got more behind me than I've got in front of me. I'll be turning 58 next year. It's my duty, it's my obligation, to establish something for those that are coming in behind me to have a voice.
Indy: There's been a lot of people saying that prejudice has shifted from being race-based to class-based; that poor people in general are being disenfranchised. Do you agree?
HA: Yeah. As a school board member [in Falcon School District 49], I had a gentleman that came into the office, and he believed at the time that he was being unfairly terminated. White gentleman. So I looked at his documentation and saw that the reason for termination didn't support termination, so I got involved with that and he received his job back.
Again, it's not a color issue, it's a class issue. Unfortunately, a large majority of the disenfranchised and the poor are Hispanic and African-American.
Indy: Let's talk about the black community. It seems like fractures in the community break down the power base. For instance, black churches don't seem to work together very often.
HA: That's why I'm working to unite the churches. I'm a man of faith and I think it can be done.
Indy: What do you think drives people apart, and what can bring them together?
HA: ... In the last several years, it's been like, "If you don't agree with me, if you don't agree with my politics, then you must not be my friend. You can't like me and disagree with me." But yet, but yet, this country was established on disagreement. Everybody didn't sit around the table and agree. How have we come to a point in the country where just because we have differences of opinion, we can't even sit down and have a conversation? We can't even speak anymore.
I go back to my time in the Army. If I disagree with my unit in combat to my right and I disagree with my unit in combat to the left, we didn't stop fighting the war. We had one common objective — that was to take the hill.