The NAACP's Leadership Summit

June 14, 1994

What really should count at this week's NAACP summit in Baltimore is not who attends but what gets done. NAACP director Benjamin Chavis says he wants the focus more on finding solutions to the massive problems confronting black America today than on whether extremists like the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan have a say in the proceedings. Mr. Chavis is being disingenuous. He knows a certain amount of controversy is inevitable and perhaps even desirable to stir interest in the event. But he is also a practical man who realizes that at the end of the day all of the participants -- most especially himself -- are going to be judged in terms of results, not rhetoric.

Gatherings of black leaders like this one have a long history marked both by solid successes and lamentable failures. One thing they have always been is a barometer for the state of race relations in this country, calibrated in terms of the leading issues affecting black Americans at the time.

A generation ago, for example, a historic meeting of several hundred activists in Gary, Ind., produced a powerful consensus for exploiting and implementing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The result was a marshaling of activists for the most important thrust toward black political empowerment since the end of Reconstruction a century earlier. Since then hundreds of black political officials have been elected at every level of government across the country.

Today, economic empowerment has replaced political enfranchisement as the paramount issue for African Americans. Being able to sit at the lunch counter isn't worth much if you can't afford a meal; nor is there much an elected black mayor or city council person can do when the municipal treasury is empty. Yet achieving economic parity may be the toughest nut of all to crack.

One thing that unites all the participants of this week's gathering is an acute awareness of economic issues. To what extent, for example, is the wealth disparity between blacks and whites a result of continuing workplace discrimination, and how can that be combatted? What is the correlation between poor schooling for black children and black unemployment, and what should effective education look like? What are the economic costs of family breakups and children born out of wedlock, and how can they be reduced? To what extent does crime produce poverty, or vice versa?

Such immense questions show how diversionary are the racist tactics of a Farrakhan.

Achieving economic parity involves more than simply creation of more black-owned businesses. It requires coordinated effort on a broad range of issues aimed at ending the institutional disparities that produce economic inequality. If the participants in this week's conference can come together around a practical strategy for black economic empowerment to match the political empowerment won during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they will have accomplished a great deal indeed.

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