ATLANTA -- A national conference of black business leaders yesterday identified black entrepreneurial efforts as the key to a new economic civil rights movement.
Disappointed with the welfare system and frustrated by legal challenges to set-aside programs, some blacks are embracing entrepreneurship as the best tool they have against economic inequities that have kept some of them from acquiring wealth.
More than 300 prominent blacks from academia, government and the manufacturing and service industries discussed the challenges facing black entrepreneurs at a national conference sponsored by Dow Jones & Co., the publishers of The Wall Street Journal.
"I think this is the most important civil rights movement in in America today," said Jack F. Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Mr. Kemp was part of a national lineup of speakers who addressed the need for minorities, and in particular blacks, to build companies that will help the United States regain some of its global economic competitiveness.
"We have become the minority of the minorities," said Joshua I. Smith, chairman of the U.S. Commission of Minority Business Development and the top executive of Lanham-based Maxima Corp.
Mr. Smith predicted that in 10 years black-owned businesses will account for 18 percent of all minority-owned businesses in the United States, down from 28 percent today.
Meanwhile, Mr. Smith said, Hispanic-owned businesses will increase from 37 percent to 41 percent and Asian American-owned business will grow from 33 percent to 40 percent.
"In 10 years, [blacks] won't make a difference," he said.
His assessment underscored findings released yesterday of a national survey sponsored by The Wall Street Journal.
Access to capital proved to be the greatest challenge blacks faced as entrepreneurs, the survey of 472 black business owners said. That lack of capital has kept many blacks from progressing as entrepreneurs.
In that regard, Inez Long of Orlando felt like a leader here among her peers.
Ms. Long was one of five Floridians attending the conference as representatives of the Florida Black Business Investment Board Inc., a state-and-privately funded organization created in 1985 as a source of capital financing for black entrepreneurs.
"We have gotten past" talking about the problem in Florida, said Ms. Long, president of the board's Black Business Investment Board of Central Florida, based in Orlando.
As conference attendees compared notes about their own struggles as business professionals, many also sensed their needs had reached a new level of national attention.
The conference included speeches from executives of BellSouth Corp., General Motors Corp. and Coca-Cola USA, which announced that it and its other Coca-Cola divisions had set a goal of spending $1 billion over the next five years with minority-owned businesses.
Some blacks expressed reservations about programs that lumped them with other minorities, arguing that their needs were unique, if not critical in an society where the entrepreneur of the inner-city is often a drug dealer.
"Access to capital and to state government contracts is blocked because of biased lending," said Mayor Maynard H. Jackson of Atlanta.