'Come together as a solid wall'

June 13, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

Black leaders vowed yesterday to rise above their philosophical differences to help their people, as a national summit opened under heavy security at NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore.

"Our differences are not more important than the suffering of our people," Louis Farrakhan, leader of the black separatist Nation of Islam, told about 55 other participants in the converted chapel that is the NAACP auditorium.

Minister Farrakhan, whose attendance spurred protests by Jewish activists, quietly entered the auditorium through a back door about 50 minutes after the meeting began. Nation of Islam members surrounded the building as Baltimore police and security guards with dogs kept the curious well away from the NAACP complex in the Seton Business Park.

The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the NAACP executive director who spearheaded the event, appeared to have succeeded in drawing a diverse group of participants to the meeting in the name of black unity.

However, leaders of other civil rights groups -- including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition, the National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- were not at the day's events. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, is expected to attend today.

Participants ranged from Princeton philosopher Cornel West and Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint to former fringe presidential candidate Lenora Fulani.

Minister Farrakhan led the applause when Dr. West, a critic of the Farrakhan message but a defender of his presence, said that the "black freedom struggle is bigger than each one of us" and urged the participants to "generate some signs of hope for downtrodden folk looking for some motion and movement."

The Nation of Islam leader spoke softly, eschewed inflammatory language and was deferential to NAACP officials during the opening session.

Hours later, he repeatedly brought the nearly all-black crowd to its feet with his rhetoric during a mass meeting at Bethel A.M.E. Church in West Baltimore.

"The enemy does not want you to love your own brother. They will sit outside and picket the fact that I am included in my own family," he said, gesturing in the direction of protesters outside. "You've got a hell of a nerve! . . . We don't get in your family business; stay out of ours!"

Minister Farrakhan, who said, "It is clear to me that God is blessing me with growing influence," vowed to boycott any corporation that "refuses to donate to the NAACP because they've included me as a member of the family."

During the afternoon session he urged African-Americans to "come together as a solid wall and present that united front. . . . Whenever we put personality above a cause bigger than ourselves, we shall always end up being divided and weak."

He portrayed himself as having matured since the 1960s when, he said, "I did not appreciate the value of Martin Luther King Jr. as an integrationist when I was preaching segregation. I did not appreciate the full value of the Civil Rights Movement."

Now, he said, "It is time that every voice in our community be brought under the same umbrella."

Dr. William F. Gibson, the NAACP board chairman, described the event as an effort to "form an alliance, a coalition . . . despite the naysayers and nabobs who say we should not meet."

Apparently countering criticism from within the NAACP for courting Minister Farrakhan, Dr. Chavis said pointedly that, "I would not be sitting here if my board did not back what I'm doing. . . . Some have thrown stones at us solely because we're trying to bring our people together."

Last night Dr. Chavis, obviously angered by criticism of his NAACP leadership in the media, said that those who "try to drive a wedge between me and Minister Farrakhan" are really worried that blacks will gain "control of our communities."

He also praised Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who sat in the audience at the church, for having the "courage . . . to embrace this summit."

The 2 1/2 -day National African-American Leadership Summit is part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's continuing efforts to rejuvenate itself by broadening its base and attracting young members.

Dr. Chavis, 46, became the NAACP's executive director in April 1993. His election by the NAACP's 64-member board of directors represented a generational change for the 85-year-old civil rights organization, the nation's largest.

Dr. Chavis, a civil rights veteran, has shakily walked a tightrope by trying to attract alienated youth and politically radical blacks to the NAACP while not abandoning the group's traditional, middle-class constituency and its liberal white allies.

The summit continues today with a breakfast held by Mayor Schmoke at the World Trade Center and a town hall meeting open to the public at 7 p.m. at Dunbar High School in East Baltimore.

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