Stresses of organizing race relations summit point up need

November 26, 1990|By Martin C. Evans

They were ugly incidents that combined racial intolerance with bloody violence, threatening to pull the city apart. Black men -- one in Remington, another in Highlandtown -- were assaulted on consecutive days in mid-July by whites in incidents that left one of the men dead.

Soon after the attacks, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an influential group of ministers called on Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to organize a "summit" meeting on race relations.

But as preparations got under way, the 32-member organizing committee began to realize that before they could heal racial divisions in Baltimore neighborhoods, they would have to confront differences that simmered among themselves.

For example, some black participants felt that Jewish leaders had been unreasonable in refusing a Saturday summit because Saturday is the Jewish sabbath. The Saturday summit, black leaders said, would have been more convenient for lower-income people with less-flexible work hours.

One black participant pointed out that he, a Moslem, had been flexible regarding a Friday summit even though Friday afternoon is the traditional time for Islamic prayer.

In fact, someone suggested that the organizing committee -- a group of civic and religious leaders selected by the Baltimore Community Relations Commission -- should have engaged in 1960s-style "sensitivity training" to help clear the air.

"Any time you bring a group of folks together to put on a program like this, you're going to get tensions," said George N. Buntin, leader of the Baltimore NAACP. "And it has nothing to do with race. It's one agenda vs. another agenda."

"Differences were reflected between the members of the summit committee," said John B. Ferron, director of the Community Relations Commission, whom the mayor had asked to organize the summit. "Adjustments had to be made."

Mr. Buntin refused to discuss publicly specific differences among members of the organizing committee, as did all of the organizers who were interviewed for this article.

"It's been a tortuous experience," Mr. Buntin said. "You've got a lot of opinions on how this should be See SUMMIT, 3C, Col. 1SUMMIT, from 1Cdone." Some of the participants said that although racial intolerance is a problem among many whites, few whites have participated in the organizational meetings -- perhaps because the commission has not been aggressive enough in recruiting them. "We've had ethnic participation galore, but our concern is a lack of participation by whites," Mr. Buntin said. But he said that the conference can be beneficial nonetheless, if the people who do attend take the message of tolerance with them to their various communities.

Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, who has participated in the organizational meetings, agrees.

"If people go back and work in their own communities, that will mark whether this is a success," he said. "If it's just people talking among themselves, then it won't have much effect." But organizers say they are confident that the summit, which will take place from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at the Convention Center, will be an important step toward better understanding among Baltimore's various racial and ethnic groups.

It will feature morning and evening workshops, where individuals can offer suggestions for how various groups can solve their differences.

Suggestions from the summit will be studied by the Human Relations Commission.

Sony R. Florendo, a Filipino woman who has helped with the effort, said she and others sought to develop workshops that would not dwell on differences.

"What we were seeking is why there are victims, what has gone wrong," Mrs. Florendo said.

The concerns of organizers that hate crimes are on the rise are supported by data kept by the state. According to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, the number of reported hate crimes grew from 398 in 1986 to 686 last year, including 206 assaults and 163 acts of vandalism.

Last year an unidentified gunman shot out windows at the NAACP national headquarters in Northwest Baltimore, and skinhead and Ku Klux Klan activists picketed the building in January.

Efforts to promote intergroup harmony are not without precedent in Baltimore.

During the early 1970s, the Southeast Community Organization grew in part out of a desire by neighborhood leaders, such as Barbara A. Mikulski, to knit unity among ethnic Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Greeks, Jews, Lumbee Indians and other groups that traditionally had chafed against each other. The organization is still thriving, and the groups live in relative harmony. Ms. Mikulski is now a U.S. senator.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.