The NAACP called a press conference the other day to formally announce a National Summit of African-American Leaders in Baltimore. The press conference was scheduled for 2 o'clock. It finally commenced at 5 minutes till 3. Then, at 5 minutes after 3, it was suddenly over.
Everybody in charge explained they were running a little late. They said this after they had heard a few questions from reporters: Farrakhan this and Farrakhan that. There were six questions, five of them on Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam minister who preaches black separatism, and then a spokeswoman for the NAACP declared matters closed.
The thing everybody wanted to know about Farrakhan was very simple: Was the NAACP inviting him to its summit meeting? No comment. Could we hear some of the thinking, the
give-and-take, among NAACP leaders that went into their decision about inviting him? No comment.
OK, no comment. It's their affair, and they're entitled to invite anybody they want -- even those not espousing "the integrationist tradition of the NAACP." The last phrase was uttered by Dr. William Gibson, chairman of the NAACP's board of directors. It was as close as anybody got to saying, "Of course we're inviting Farrakhan," but it was subtle enough not to touch on the real Farrakhan issues: the cries for racial separatism, the anti-white rhetoric, the Jew-bashing.
OK, so it's no comment. Farrakhan's strictly a side issue anyway, in case everybody's forgotten. Slightly overlooked this spring is the 40th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, which integrated the nation's public schools and helped set in motion a sea change in American public life.
Everything was supposed to begin getting better after Brown. Not only black people said so, and not only the NAACP, which led the fight, but millions of nonblack Americans who believed all those equality-of-opportunity lectures in schools.
So here we are, 40 years later, and the NAACP calls for this national summit, next month in Baltimore, to address what it is pointedly calling "the deteriorating socioeconomic condition of the African-American community."
Good subject. If Thursday's press conference hadn't started 55 minutes late, and if they hadn't halted it after a few minutes of cat-and-mouse about Farrakhan, maybe the NAACP leaders could have talked about such conditions.
They did say this much: A newly commissioned national poll of 3,500 NAACP members views economics, education and crime as the top three priorities among blacks.
Four decades of desegregated schools, three decades of open housing laws, voting rights laws, equal employment laws, and it's still a nation where black income is dwarfed by white income, where black unemployment far outstrips white unemployment, where the rates of black school dropouts and black unwed pregnancies are staggering, and where the rate of black crime is self-destruction on the most tragic scale.
In the face of this, should anybody care about Louis Farrakhan? Well, yes. Among other things, he's saying the last 40 years have been wrongheaded, that this integration attempt was all wrong. He's blaming white people for this, but it's also, inevitably, a slap at the NAACP, whose voice was always the loudest for breaking down the walls of segregation.
And now he's apparently to be given a voice at the NAACP's national summit, leading a lot of people to wonder: Does it signal some sort of shift in the organization's thinking?
"We're giving him a voice?" Rodney Orange asked, echoing a question. Orange heads the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, and he was standing there Thursday afternoon, after the national leaders had vacated the room for parts unknown.
"Wait a minute," Orange said now. "We're not giving him anything. What other black leader can draw 35,000 people to a speech? He has a voice, a constituency. It doesn't mean we follow what he says. But look at his [Nation of Islam]: Why is it their children don't smoke or drink? Why is it they stay in school and pay attention to their parents?"
That's the other side of Farrakhan: He seems to have some real successes. Take away the hateful rhetoric, the willful rewriting of history, and this man could be a healthy force. But he refuses to change his language and so undercuts his own strength.
"Listen," Rodney Orange said, "I'm troubled by any statements that are anti-Semitic. And we've labeled them repugnant. We don't support them. But. . . ."
But there's other business on the table. The NAACP press conference was 55 minutes late, but so what? The dream of a colorblind America, ushered in by a Supreme Court vote on schools, is now 40 years late.
And now we'll begin to find where the next 40 years will take us: to an extension of the NAACP's dream of integration, or Louis Farrakhan's call for separation. He should be invited here. He has important things to say. But there are some who disagree with him, and maybe they can tell him a few things, too.