Black leaders' summit maybe did some good

June 16, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

My barber, Leroy Gattis, believes the national black leadership summit, held in Baltimore this week, was a tremendous success.

"It separated the men from the boys," Leroy said enthusiastically, waving his clippers in the air. "It showed us who has guts and who doesn't; who has the courage to be a leader and who needs to step aside."

"But it was all for show," I protested. "It was all primping and posing and talking tough in front of the TV cameras. Did they come up with any exciting new solutions? Did you hear them announce new programs, new directions, new anything? Did this so-called national black leadership summit produce anything, in fact, besides the same old rhetoric?"

"But you see, that's not what it was all about," answered Leroy. "Our community needs strong black leaders, people we can look up to, people whom we can trust not to sell us out when the pressure mounts. That's what this summit was all about. It showed us who we can count on and who we cannot count on."

Leroy and I frequently carry on like this, going back and forth over issues large and small. He is 44 years old, a father, a churchgoer. He admires Louis Farrakhan and is a fan of the Baltimore Orioles. His shop sits in the 4600 block of York Road, part of a row of black-owned small businesses catering to the working class communities of Govans and Northwood.

I asked Leroy for his opinion on the leadership summit the moment I walked into his shop yesterday. I half-expected him to be down on it. Most of the people I have talked with the past three days seemed to be -- describing the three-day meeting sponsored by the NAACP as either a disappointment or a farce. Many people seemed turned off by the seeming focus on the presence of Minister Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam. And while some complained that all discussions of substance seemed to take place behind closed doors, others said the leaders spent too much time in front of the cameras.

I have similar concerns. Black leaders seem to have turned the civil rights movement into a spectator sport. But, since they have been so very public about their meeting, the least they could have done was keep the public informed. When the summit ended Tuesday, its host, NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., pronounced the conference a success. But he declined to give many details of what went on or what was accomplished.

As usual, my barber surprised me. "I thought the summit was tremendous," said Leroy, who attended its "town meeting" at Dunbar High School Tuesday evening. "It was just what the community needed -- a show of unity and a show of strength. Our young people need role models who are strong, who are men enough to take the heat, who won't sell them out. The summit gave them that."

In Leroy's opinion, Dr. Chavis was the summit's big winner, while representatives of the National Urban League and many black elected officials were the losers.

The proverbial powers-that-be "sat Chavis down and they told him not to hold this summit and not to invite Minister Farrakhan," noted Leroy. "But he held it anyway and he made it clear that he would not be dictated to. That showed me something."

I suppose my friend has a point. Black leaders speak of drug abuse and crime, unemployment and the breakdown of the family as the most pressing problems facing communities today. But perhaps a more serious problem than any of those is the growing sense of despair that grips so many people; the loss of faith in the leadership; the belief -- especially among the young -- that blacks are powerless to change anything.

From that perspective, black leaders' ostentatious display of unity and defiance this week may have done some good. Didn't someone once say that "image is everything"?

Leroy would like to see black communities across the country hold monthly town meetings with local black leaders.

"You see," he said, "once you get people talking about the problems, you get them involved, you get them motivated to change things."

My barber may be on to something. The solution to our problems may be just that simple.

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