Cheers, challenges at NAACP summit

June 14, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article

Hundreds of Baltimoreans cheered and challenged the nation's black leaders last night during an NAACP-sponsored "town hall meeting" at Dunbar High School.

It was the first chance during the three-day National African-American Leadership Summit for the leaders -- the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Rep. Kweisi Mfume among others -- to exchange views directly with the people of Baltimore.

Minister Farrakhan, leader of the black separatist Nation of Islam, received the largest ovations from the 1,000 people who packed the Dunbar school theater in East Baltimore.

He called the summit a "family matter" and said: "I am a member of my family." He urged the audience to become members of the NAACP, as he is. He also said he plans to lead 1 million black men in a march on Washington next year.

Princeton philosopher Cornel West said it is "the hunger and the thirst of the masses of people that leadership is responding to."

However, the leaders did most of the talking during the televised event, and audience members shouted several times for a chance to speak.

Zattura Sims-El, who runs an entrepreneurship program for Dunbar students, won an off-the-cuff invitation to participate in the summitfrom Dr. Chavis, the NAACP executive director, when she urged the leaders not just to identify problems but to solve them. She said blacks must take control of school systems that she said are run by "the slave masters."

In response, Minister Farrakhan won an ovation when he said: "We are not being educated; we are being trained to serve the system." He said churches should supplement black children's education.

The meeting followed a day of closed summit sessions at the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Northwest Baltimore.

Dr. Chavis termed yesterday's sessions "productive" and "a good start."

Mr. Jackson and Mr. Mfume made their first appearances of the summit, which began Sunday, and joined Dr. Chavis and Minister Farrakhan there in a show of unity.

"Millions of African-Americans want to hear something from the summit, and I want to say to our community it's a victory for us to be together," Dr. Chavis told reporters. "We're determined to stay together."

The summit concludes this afternoon with a final session that is open to the press.

About 75 black invitees took part in two closed sessions yesterday. Participants ranged from leaders of a national sorority, a Masonic order and the black dentists association to NAACP youth leaders, advocates of Afrocentric education and black nationalists. Dr. Chavis offered few details about the closed-door meetings. "We are not at the results stage," Dr. Chavis said.

Earlier yesterday, many of the summit participants had joined Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for breakfast on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center.

While Jewish activists outside protested Minister Farrakhan's presence because of the Nation of Islam's record of anti-Semitic statements, the black leaders defended their right to have included the minister at the summit.

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.

"This is the operative way of creating progress in the new world order -- talk it out instead of fight it out," the leader of the National Rainbow Coalition said. "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 there were embraces all around. Mayor Schmoke hugged 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 the city did not pay for the breakfast, although it did provide for free use of the Top of the World observation area overlooking the Inner Harbor.

Minister Farrakhan, who spoke at Sunday afternoon's opening session and galvanized a rally at Bethel A.M.E. Church that evening, has adopted a largely conciliatory tone, at one point asking churchgoers: "If my rhetoric is too strident, who better to correct me than my brothers?"

Mr. Schmoke said he sometimes disagrees with Minister Farrakhan but added: "I don't think any of us should be telling Minister Farrakhan what to say or what not to say."

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 1990s. 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.

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