Witch Hunt at New Mount Olive

For regulars at the Sunday service of Fort Lauderdale's New Mount Olive Baptist Church, the spiritual journey of Pastor Mack King Carter is as familiar as that of any biblical figure.

It begins in Ocala, Florida, in 1953, when, at the age of five, Carter says he became "a slave for Jesus Christ."

At Belleview-Santos, a segregated school in Ocala, the future ecclesiastic was an eager, attentive student intent on making his teachers proud. In the decades to follow he would remember their names and repeat their aphorisms for the New Mount Olive congregation.

To hear Carter rhapsodize about Ocala in those sermons today, it seems he wants to return to the city — not modern-day Ocala so much as the Ocala of his youth. Or of his parents' youth, when all the businesses on West Broadway, from Magnolia to 16th avenues, were owned by black families. It was home to the best black hotel in the state and one of the few black banks in the South. The black preachers bought their suits, hats, and shoes from Crompton's Dry Goods Store, until its black owner, Gibbs Crompton, died in 1959.

Carter had to leave Ocala to know how rare his experience there was. He studied at the University of Florida, delighting in classes like philosophy where he debated with prejudiced white classmates. He earned his doctorate of ministry degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and served as pastor at Green Castle Baptist Church in nearby Prospect, Kentucky. By 1980, it seems, Carter longed for a return to Florida. Judging by his writings, Carter had discovered an aching nostalgia for Ocala — a close-knit black community empowered by faith — at the same time he discerned disenfranchisement, self-hatred, and a lack of faith in the black communities he'd observed since leaving his hometown.

Watch a clip from one of Pastor Mack King Carter's sermons

Click here to go to the New Mount Olive Church's own YouTube channel.

He's long said it was "God's call," but maybe it was also Carter's hope to recreate an Ocala-like harmony that led him to Fort Lauderdale and New Mount Olive in 1981. The congregation, which since 1918 has gathered around NW 9th Avenue, just south of Sistrunk Boulevard, was the spiritual anchor for the African-American community, due in part to the steady hand of its senior pastor, Rev. George Weaver. In 1982, Weaver named Carter his successor. "For him to choose Pastor Carter was instant credibility," says Kenneth Mullins, a long-time New Mount Olive member. "We all accepted him instantly."

Carter's bombastic style was in marked contrast to the plain-speaking Weaver, and under Carter the congregation surged. It attracted new members, growing to around 9,000, making it the state's biggest black church, one with the resources to practice community activism in a low-income, crime-ridden section of the city. Carter's sermons would be telecast locally and internationally. With that high profile came political power, as well as the admiration of such celebrated figures as Aretha Franklin. She's been known to phone Carter and request a video of his sermons.

But along the way, Carter lost the faith of several of the church's most active members, a group of trustees who suspected him of violating church bylaws — possibly, taking more than his fair share of church funds. When in the summer of 2006 the trustees tried to investigate their suspicions, they say Carter suspended their activities and revised the church's constitution to give himself more power. Carter accused the group of doing the Devil's work.

With their conflict now spilling into Broward Circuit Court, things are bound to get uglier in the new year. The thousands who flock to New Mount Olive on Sunday mornings likely will have to choose sides. And no matter the outcome of the pending litigation, Carter's vision of a community bound together and strengthened by faith now seems further away than ever.

Dr. Mack King Carter is the most visible, powerful member of the New Mount Olive congregation, but the church's original bylaws sought a separation of power, giving the church's 25-member board of trustees something like a congressional function. The trustees would oversee the spending of church funds and, in theory, could block initiatives by the pastor that the board thought were not in the church's financial interests.

Kenneth Mullins' path to the New Mount Olive trustee board was typical. He started as a Sunday school teacher. "To see the faith of these children, that made me love church," says Mullins. "Then Dr. Carter told me, 'I'm going to recommend you to the trustee board.' I said, 'What's the trustee board?' "

He learned the board was made up of people like him — active church members willing to accept trustee chores on top of their full-time jobs. A professional then employed with a state utility, Mullins knew about dealing with bureaucracy. He would serve on a board that also had a county employee, a cop, a social service worker, and small business owners, who each brought their own expertise.

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Thomas Francis