The Nicest Bulldog in Town
Mark Bryant began advocating for his family in high school; now he’s the president of Freedom, Inc.
Published in 2005 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
on October 24, 2005
Updated on October 17, 2016
Mark Bryant grew up in Kansas City’s urban core in the 1950s, when opportunities for young African-American men were hard to come by, and where keeping bullies from taking one’s lunch money at D.A. Holmes Elementary School was a daily challenge. It made him tough, though. So you can needle him about his current fast-lane lifestyle, his hefty paychecks, his posh uptown office, his ultra-lucrative real estate deals, and all you’ll get in response is a charismatic grin. Take the conversation anywhere near his family, however, and the emotional side of Bryant begins to come to the surface. He chokes up slightly.
Bryant, a real estate attorney in the Kansas City office of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, started his advocacy because of his family. In the mid-1960s at Kansas City’s Southeast High School, African Americans made up 25 percent of the student body and 65 percent of the athletic teams but still encountered a fair amount of prejudice. Cheerleaders, for example, were elected following an open competition in front of the entire student body. In 1967, Bryant’s sister Stephanie was the only African American to try out, but when the votes were tallied she was not elected. With six white girls and one African American in the running, and each student required to cast six votes, the race card was stacked against her.
“No one perceived the election results as unfair until they were announced,” recalls Bryant. “But the difference in her agility, crispness of routine and personality was so pronounced, that African-American students could not believe the outcome of the election. Once students and school administrators analyzed the election results, it was obvious that students of both races had cast their ballots, in part, on the basis of race. Given that fact, it was virtually impossible for an African American to be elected as a cheerleader.”
When administrators failed to respond to the injustice, Bryant led a class boycott. As a result, the election procedure was changed and his sister was elected cheerleader.
Despite such advocacy, back then Bryant was hardly a stellar student; but after stumbling across a family scrapbook he discovered his mother had been the first African-American woman admitted to the School of Education at what was then the University of Kansas City. She graduated first in her class, and Bryant got motivated. “Understanding what she was able to accomplish, seven years after graduating from high school, with three children, motivated me to continue her legacy.”
Interest in politics was honed at the family dinner table. His father was a dining-car waiter on the Kansas City Southern for 30 years. Upon his retirement, he sought elected office. In the early 1960s, no African Americans held elected office in Kansas City, so his father joined an organization called Freedom, Inc., which was founded in 1962 and is dedicated to unifying African-American voters to maximize their political leverage. Thereafter, Freedom, Inc., was hugely successful in electing African Americans to the Missouri General Assembly, Jackson County Legislature and Kansas City, Missouri, City Council. Unfortunately, Bryant’s father lost two successive elections for state representative. “Each time my dad lost, I felt his pain,” Bryant remembers. “Worse, I felt guilty because I had not helped him enough. After I graduated [from University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Law in 1975], I wanted him to be proud of me, so I decided to seek elected office hoping he could enjoy victory vicariously.”
In preparation, Bryant joined the boards of directors of a host of civic and political organizations. “You have to remember,” he says, “there weren’t very many African-American lawyers in the late 1970s and early 1980s so it was easy for me to participate.” In 1980, he was elected as a trustee of the Metropolitan Community Colleges. In 1982, he lost an at-large election for the Jackson County, Missouri, Legislature, but a year later he defeated the incumbent in an at-large election for the City Council of Kansas City, Missouri. He served until 1991.
“It’s just been remarkable,” says the elder Bryant. “In July, Mark took me to a [Royals] ballgame and he was able to throw out the first pitch. It’s enough to make a father gloat.”
Bryant’s proudest achievement came on the City Council. It was the settlement of litigation surrounding what is now the Bruce R. Watkins Roadway. The Missouri Department of Transportation had proposed the widening and extension of 71 Highway through the urban core of Kansas City when Bryant was in elementary school. “People were concerned that it would create disruptive noise,” Bryant remembers, “cause pollution, separate African Americans from essential services, be a traffic hazard for children and divide the African-American vote.”
With the help of the Legal Aid & Defender Society, litigation was undertaken to halt the road expansion, but the Missouri Department of Transportation continued to assemble land, and the surrounding properties deteriorated in anticipation of condemnation. By the time Bryant was elected, the combined effect of the acquisitions and litigation was urban blight, two miles wide, from Bannister Road to Truman Road, through the African-American community. Bryant used the power of his office and brought the parties together to negotiate a settlement. Today, the Bruce R. Watkins Roadway benefits the entire metropolitan area.
Although he no longer seeks elected office, Bryant’s political involvement, and his political power, is greater than ever. In 2000, he was elected president of Freedom, Inc.
“He’s one of the top ten political leaders on this side of the state,” says Kansas City political consultant Pat Gray. “If you’re a candidate running for an at-large position in Kansas City or Jackson County, and don’t know enough to have him on your list, you may want to rethink your decision about running. He’s a sharp attorney who’s well connected — from the streets to the mayor’s office to Congress.”
In existence for 43 years, Freedom, Inc., is the umbrella organization for all African-American elected officials in Kansas City and influences a segment of tightly knit voters who make up approximately 30 percent of the city’s voters. “And more times than not black people vote the Freedom ballot in every election from the president of the United States to the local school board. As a result, if you’re running for mayor or sheriff, or have a ballot proposition, you call Freedom, Inc.,” says Bryant. “It has nothing to do with me. A unified African-American vote commands respect. That’s simply the way it is.”
Bryant is involved in civic organizations as well — particularly the Negro League Baseball Museum, which has ties to his childhood. “There was a baseball stadium [O’Hara — now named for baseball great Satchel Paige] three blocks from my house where I worked as a child chasing foul balls for a dollar a game,” he remembers. Bob and Don Motley were umpires for the amateur Ban Johnson League at O’Hara. Don Motley, the current executive director of the NLB Museum, who still coaches at the same ball field where Bryant shagged foul balls, describes Bryant as an enterprising hometown kid who made something of himself but never forgot where he came from.
“I watched that little man graduate from school, go on to make city councilman and turn into someone who is just outstanding. He brings a lot of expertise here … lots of it.”
While he was president of the board of the museum, it signed a million-dollar-a-year licensing agreement with Nike to sell NLB insignias. When asked about his involvement in the deal, Bryant shrugs. “We have a staff, you know,” he replies modestly. “I just host the dinners.” These dinners have him rubbing elbows with the likes of Barry Bonds, Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Buck O’Neil, the ninety-something former Negro League star whom Bryant calls a national treasure.
Hobnobbing with Kansas City’s rich and powerful is now a weekly affair for Bryant, but it doesn’t detract from his lawyerly achievements, which include serving as outside counsel for a group of organizations affiliated with Swope Community Enterprises. “It all began as a community health center in the basement of a church some 30 years ago. And now it’s an enterprise that’s grown to be one of the three largest community health centers in the United States, generating in the neighborhood of $500 million in annual revenues.”
Today, Bryant is primarily involved in the affiliate — Swope Community Builders — which develops real estate in blighted areas. “It is the premier nonprofit real estate development company in this region of the country,” he says. “One of the good things about redevelopment of blighted areas is the amount of public acrimony that is reduced. Oftentimes the residents understand that new construction, so long as it is compatible with the area, is often a source of much-needed services.”
Recently Swope constructed a community health care facility, an office building and an H&R Block service center. The company has single-family housing subdivisions, multi-family housing projects and a retail shopping center in the works.
“The success of my representation is measured not only by the real estate transactions I close but also by whether or not a developer’s proposal will be approved by the City Planning Commission, the City Council’s Economic Development Committee, the Missouri Housing Development Commission or the Missouri Housing Development Finance Board. The people who serve on these bodies are political appointees and I enjoy access to these folks as a result of my civic involvement. If I don’t know the appointee, I know the person who appointed them.
“In other words, other lawyers seek to influence a jury. My jury consists of these public bodies and their verdict is not a ‘guilty’ or a ‘not guilty,’ a ‘verdict for plaintiff or defendant’ … it’s approval of the development.”
Donovan Mouton, director of urban affairs in the Kansas City’s mayor’s office agrees: “He brings a unique blend in terms of being a former elected city councilman, president of a local minority political action organization and experience as an attorney dealing with real estate — as well as municipal law. So he has an insight into the minds of the people who sit in those elected positions, as well as sensitivity to the pulse of the constituency we all serve.”
“I learned early on,” says Bryant, “that the lowliest person at the courthouse knows their specific function better than anyone else, and they can make or break you. He or she can elevate your case to first even if the docket has 50 cases. So the lesson is treat everyone with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Respect is one reason Bryant got involved in the law in the first place. “As an African American,” he says, “you often feel discriminated against by police, creditors, retailers and landlords. In my mind, a license to practice law was the great equalizer and a means of commanding respect.”
Now he commands it, and now he treats everyone with it, but, beneath the charisma, the kid from Kansas City’s tough urban core is still there. “His personality is very disarming,” Mouton says. “I usually say he’s the nicest bulldog we know.”