Black leaders aim for unity at city meeting

June 13, 1994|By James Bock and Ivan Penn | James Bock and Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writers

In an unusual show of unity, the nation's top black leaders -- the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Rep. Kweisi Mfume -- joined Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for breakfast today on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center.

While Jewish activists outside protested Minister Farrakhan's presence, the African-American leaders defended their right to meet at a national summit sponsored by the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

If Israelis and Palestinians can talk, and black South Africans and white Afrikaners can talk, Mr. Jackson said, then black Americans of differing philosophies should be able to engage in dialogue without facing criticism.

"This is the operative way of creating progress in the new world order -- talk it out instead of fight it out," said the leader of the National Rainbow Coalition. "All we're asking is that the game be played by one set of rules."

All the leaders except Minister Farrakhan, who remained seated at a table near the podium, addressed the breakfast gathering, and therewere embraces all around -- for example, Mayor Schmoke hugging the Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York activist who arrived with Mr. Jackson.

"We're here to be pro-African-American, not anti-Jewish, anti-white or anti-anybody else," Mr. Schmoke said in an interview. He said no city funds went to pay for the breakfast, other than free use of the Top of the World observation area overlooking the Inner Harbor.

The mayor said that he disagreed with some of Minister Farrakhan's rhetoric, but that, "I don't think any of us should be telling Minister Farrakhan what to say or what not to say."

Mr. Schmoke said the one thing all the black groups had in common was the "mission . . . to fight the legacy of racism."

The mayor, a life member of the NAACP, praised Dr. Chavis for calling the summit.

"Dr. Chavis is really on the horns of a dilemma," he said, "because on one hand there are people who say the NAACP is not relevant to the needs of the black community in the 1990's. On the other hand, when he tries to turn to the pressing needs of the community and reaches out to those he believes can help solve some of the problems, he is criticized for that.

"I think what he's doing is trying to strike an appropriate balance which does not discard the historic position of the NAACP but tries to direct it to address some of the needs of the 1990's," Mr. Schmoke said.

Asked how Minister Farrakhan could help, the mayor said that the black separatist speaks to some blacks' "nationalist sentiment" and to the desire for black economic empowerment.

Mr. Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, "We reserve the right to be different. God calls us to understand and to find ways to build on our similarities" -- to which Minister Farrakhan said softly, "Yes."

The congressman said the black leaders should "try to heal our communities and reach out to one another" for the generation of African-American children who "don't have the ability to summit, but they do have the ability to dream."

The summit participants left the breakfast to go to NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore for the conference's first closed-door session. They are to discuss black economic development, youth and community empowerment, and moral and spiritual renewal in sessions today and tomorrow.

Dr. Chavis said the conferees would hold three closed sessions in hopes of being able to speak more candidly with one another than if reporters were present.

Mr. Sharpton said in an interview that the participants should try to develop some common positions on matters of national debate such as health care and crime.

"If we come out of here with just having some egos meet, it will be recorded as another session that is more fluff than substance," he said.

Mr. Jackson said that black leaders could seek unity and at the same time try to build coalitions with members of other ethnic groups.

"There's no contradiction between unity and coalition," he said.

But a group of about 16 protesters who marched to the World Trade Center said they found the presence of Minister Farrakhan, whose group regularly makes anti-Jewish statements, incompatible with the NAACP's mission and unacceptable at a breakfast held by the mayor.

They also protested the city's having contracted with NOI Security, Inc., an affiliate of the Nation of Islam, to provide security at several Baltimore public housing projects.

"It is tragic that the NAACP, a private organization, has embraced a racist," shouted Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of the New York-based Coalition for Jewish Concerns. "But it is infinitely worse for the government of the City of Baltimore to funnel millions of dollars to the Nation of Islam."

"Shame on Schmoke," the protesters shouted from behind yellow police tape, as about 20 police officers and a dozen members of the Nation of Islam stood on the plaza outside the World Trade Center.

When he arrived for the breakfast, Mr. Jackson walked over to the protest line and shook hands with the pickets.

"It's an unfortunate distraction," Mr. Jackson said later about the protest. He said he shook hands because "even with disagreement, there must not be hostility."

Mr. Jackson was a rival of Dr. Chavis for the NAACP leadership last year, and relations between the two men have been cool. His presence enables the NAACP executive director to say that the summit has drawn the nation's major black leaders together.

Tonight, as part of the summit, the NAACP will sponsor a "town hall meeting" at Dunbar High School in East Baltimore. The event, which begins at 7 p.m., is free and open to the public.

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