Black leaders' summit: A search for unity, solutions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tina Thompson, a veteran community activist along West Baltimore's Fulton Avenue, isn't passively waiting for the NAACP-sponsored leadership summit that begins today in Baltimore to tell her how to cure what ails black America.

Ms. Thompson forged ahead on her own early this year and helped create a Saturday morning tutorial program for 21 neighborhood schoolchildren at the Western District police station.

"It doesn't matter what you do, if you don't do something with the young black men coming up today, you've got hell to pay," she said.

Ask African-Americans to set the agenda for black leaders and, like Ms. Thompson, many will warn of the hell to pay if something isn't done about poverty, drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, youth violence and other social ills.

Add more middle-class concerns such as corporate glass ceilings and black entrepreneurship, and the list of issues grows even longer.

For Beulah Buckner, a federal government retiree from Columbia, black Americans' core problem has more to do with class than race. She says the key is jobs.

For Jeff Ramsey, a 23-year-old suburbanite, any solution must begin with "parents taking care of their kids. I guess it all starts at home."

For Diana Smith, who runs three YWCA shelters, the leaders "have to stay focused on people -- children's programs, day care, mental health, AIDS prevention."

And for Zachary McDaniels, a Coppin State College student leader, the 1994 civil rights agenda must include providing health care, saving black colleges and defeating the three-strikes-and-you're-out approach to fighting crime.

Where's a black leader to start? Can a 2 1/2 -day National African-American Leadership Summit help?

Indeed it can, says Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political scientist, and the broader the range of black leaders who attend the summit, the better. He views the expected attendance of black separatist Louis Farrakhan as a plus, in spite of the Nation of Islam's offensiveness to many whites, particularly Jews.

Leadership, in order to exist, has to be perceived as leading somebody. Black leaders like . . . Ben Chavis almost have to have a broadly inclusive summit to be viewed as independent and legitimate," he said.

The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., 46, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's executive director, has molded the summit in the same image as his "new" NAACP -- as a group equally comfortable with corporate executives, gang leaders, black nationalists and, of course, Minister Farrakhan. For that, Dr. Chavis has been roundly criticized by many white Americans, including Jewish liberals who traditionally have been NAACP allies. They can't fathom how a group dedicated to fighting bigotry can retain the moral authority to do so while consorting with a leader who teaches that whites are "devils."

He also has faced some dissent within the NAACP, a mainstream, middle-class organization ill at ease with Minister Farrakhan's bow-tied militants and with bandanna-wearing gang members and in-your-face practitioners of "gangsta" rap.

Dr. Chavis can gain luster and black leaders can take a step toward unity, Dr. Thornton said, if those at the summit don't try to solve all of black America's problems at once.

"The worst thing they can do is try to deal substantively with the major issues," he said. "The best thing they can do is understand it is symbolic, and that's all it is. They need to get to know each other better."

Out of fresh ideas?

Others are skeptical of the summit's value.

Carl O. Snowden, a black Annapolis alderman and longtime community organizer, respects Dr. Chavis, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume and others who are expected to attend. But he says the summit is a sign that the NAACP is out of "fresh ideas."

"I don't think you'll find any big expectations [for the summit]. In fact, it may be closer to cynicism," he said. "Problems don't get solved by making speeches, flying into town and flying out."

Mr. Snowden suggested that black leaders could adopt the strategy that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used effectively: lend their prestige to local, grass-roots action that spotlights national problems.

Robert L. Woodson Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, says the summit "means absolutely nothing."

"People want to know what strategies the NAACP has to get drugs out of their communities or to reduce violence," he said. "The same items have been on agendas for years. The issue is what is the action plan? Don't just show me the recipe, show me the cake.

"Our people are suffering in the cities, and they're not suffering for lack of a conference on black unity," he said. "They're suffering for lack of strategies, resources and clearly defined objectives that enlist them in the solution of their problems."

More than two-thirds of black Americans believe the civil rights movement has been mostly successful during the past 30 years, according to a 1993 Gallup Poll, but fully 40 percent say civil rights groups no longer have a "major impact" on American society.

Yet the same poll showed that blacks still expect much from civil rights leaders. They rated civil rights second only to crime among political issues of importance. Just 7 percent of blacks said civil rights groups were "asking for too much."

No black leader today approaches the stature that Dr. King achieved among African-Americans in the 1960s. Mr. Jackson comes closest, according to Gallup. Thirty-nine percent of blacks called the former presidential hopeful "the most important national leader in the black community." Dr. Chavis, Minister Farrakhan and Gen. Colin Powell each garnered 3 percent in the poll.

Cornel West, a black philosopher, says the quality of black leaders has declined since prosperous blacks moved more fully into America's consumer society as a result of the civil rights gains of the 1960s.

"Presently, black middle-class life is principally a matter of professional conscientiousness, personal accomplishment and cautious adjustment," he writes. Such qualities, he says, don't make for strong leadership.

Quality there, not unity

But Clayborne Carson, editor of the King papers at Stanford University, argues that black leaders are just as qualified -- and black unity just as elusive -- as ever.

"We so quickly forget that even between Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins there were lots of differences over methods," he said. "The only issue that really ever united the black community was the issue of overt racial discrimination. The potential for mobilizing the entire community today is much less."

Linda Williams, research director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, said the Jim Crow era tied the black middle class and the black poor to a common cause.

"Today there is more substantial class division. It is a harder community to keep congealed," she said.

That is why Beulah Buckner, the Columbia retiree, says Minister Farrakhan must be included in the discussion, despite the Nation of Islam's anti-Jewish rhetoric.

"I'm not a follower of his, but he speaks for folks out in the street that nobody speaks for," she said.

Mrs. Buckner, who listens to everyone from Minister Farrakhan to Rush Limbaugh, expects to closely follow summit news today through Tuesday from NAACP headquarters and several other city sites.

But Leroy Scott, 37, an ice cream factory worker from Ellicott City, admits that his attention will likely wander.

"I respect everything they're trying to do, but there's meetings, meetings and meetings," he said. "What young adults, even guys my age, are going to sit there and listen? The first thing they do is hit the remote."

EVENTS

The NAACP's National African-American Leadership Summit will include two events that are free and open to the public:

* 7 p.m.-9 p.m. today: Mass meeting at Bethel A.M.E. Church, 1300 Druid Hill Ave.

* 7 p.m.-9 p.m. tomorrow: Town hall meeting at Dunbar High School, 1400 Orleans St.

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