Urban League's salute to Thurmond stirs anger

March 08, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A storm of outrage has descended on the Washington chapter of the National Urban League because it has invited Sen. Strom Thurmond, a determined foe of civil rights legislation, to tonight's dinner honoring friendships between blacks and whites.

Many African-Americans want to know why this old-line civil rights organization, founded in 1911 to serve the social and economic needs of blacks, has invited Mr. Thurmond. The dinner is held each year in memory of Whitney M. Young Jr., who was president of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971.

Some are furious that the 92-year-old senator from South Carolina should attend such an affair, much less be among the 34 people -- half of them black, half of them white -- who are to be honored.

"Black people must be the most forgiving people on the face of the earth," said Joseph Madison, a member of the national board of the NAACP. "I have no problems forgiving people and working with them. But Strom Thurmond has never once denounced his anti-civil rights activity. I think it is an absolute insult to the memory of people who have worked for civil rights."

Mr. Madison said his first reaction to the news was "one of laughter -- to keep from crying."

The senator will be presented at the banquet as the friend and mentor of Armstrong Williams, a black Washington talk show host and public relations man who recently described himself as "probably more conservative than Jesse Helms."

Sixteen other pairs of friends will be honored.

Maudine Cooper, president of the Washington Urban League, said she knew that some people would object but did not expect the depth of outrage she has seen. She said she recognizes that the Urban League stands for virtually everything that both Mr. Williams and Mr. Thurmond oppose, such as affirmative action, abortion rights and public assistance to the poor. She also agreed that some black people might find it insulting.

But, she said, "we are not honoring [Mr. Thurmond] as an individual. We are honoring the friendship between a black person and a white person."

Mr. Williams asserts that questions about Mr. Thurmond's racial politics or history are not relevant. "That's not the issue," he said heatedly yesterday. "The issue is friendship. We're not dealing with his record. He's my friend. I chose him [for the honor]. That's it."

The explanations were generally not well-received.

"I really don't understand what Thurmond has to do with the work of the Urban League," said Roger Wilkins, a historian at George Mason University and a nephew of Roy Wilkins, the late leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"They should have understood that doing anything that honored Strom Thurmond would have caused anguish to black people who remember that in 1948 he led Southerners out of the Democratic Party because it included a civil rights plank."

This was a reference to Mr. Thurmond's role as the leader of a short-lived states' rights party known informally as the Dixiecrats. He ran for president at the head of that party in 1948. In 1964, he switched to the Republican Party.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore said he was "surprised" to learn of the recognition and award. He said it made him ask himself "if this was the same Strom Thurmond I grew up with in this country."

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