Civil rights veterans judge race relations at crossroads Changes predicted by pair speaking at King events

January 14, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Two veterans of the civil rights movement say black and white relations are at a crossroads after one of the most racially divisive years in their memories.

"There will be a change before the turn of the century," said James Farmer, one of the principal organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. "The tension is too great."

In honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday tomorrow, Mr. Farmer, now 76, is to speak at Anne Arundel Community College at 8 a.m. Saturday. Julian Bond, a student organizer in the 1960s and now, at 56, a member of the NAACP's national board of directors, is to address the Martin Luther King Jr. awards dinner in Annapolis at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

These veteran activists say the nation's civil rights organizations are at a turning point.

Both urged unity and called on churches and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to rediscover their leadership roles. They differed on what messages will resonate with African-Americans in the future.

Minister Louis Farrakhan figures prominently in their predictions. Both men boycotted the Nation of Islam leader's Million Man March, saying Mr. Farrakhan's message was too separatist. Still, Mr. Farmer said, the march could be the start of a new Farrakhan-led organization for young blacks.

"I am sure Minister Farrakhan and his associates are traveling around the country trying to organize what they've started," he said. "Whether a new organization is going to be led by LTC Farrakhan and his associates, whether it will be black separatism, or whether it will move back toward the center is not for certain. But there are many people out there beckoning for [blacks'] attention."

If Mr. Farrakhan succeeds, the Nation of Islam easily could rival the NAACP in influence, Mr. Farmer said.

"I doubt young people are going to be turning to the NAACP," he said. "The NAACP has a big job ahead of it just to determine what its mission is now."

Mr. Bond was skeptical of Mr. Farrakhan's lasting hold on the black community. "Other than the speech at the march, Farrakhan has not asked people to do anything," Mr. Bond said. "I don't know what he wants. I wonder if he knows."

Mr. Bond, who recently served on the search committee that picked U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland to head the NAACP, was more optimistic about the health of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

"The NAACP already has the largest youth membership of any secular organization, and under the leadership of Mfume I think it is going to attract more and more young people," Mr. Bond said. "I think they're going to get a real burst of energy."

The celebration of King's birthday comes at the end of what Mr. Bond called an "annus horribilis" -- Latin for "horrible year."

The double-murder trial of O. J. Simpson and his subsequent acquittal brought into stark relief the differing perceptions and worlds of blacks and whites. The Million Man March and debates in Washington over the future of affirmative action further tested race relations, Mr. Bond said.

Meanwhile, unifying forces are hard to find. The NAACP, an institution that has helped bring blacks and whites together, has been wracked by an internal leadership struggle and other turmoil. And the nation will never know whether the presidential contender who wasn't -- the retired Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Colin L. Powell -- would have bridged the racial divide this year.

Mr. Farmer and Mr. Bond see the nation in as much turmoil -- albeit of a different kind -- as when they campaigned for racial equality alongside King. They describe the legacy of the 1960s movement not with a sense of closure but a feeling of urgency.

"Today you don't hear the words 'brotherhood' being used, or 'fellowship,' " Mr. Farmer said. "Now blacks and whites talk about how bad the other guy is. We keep thinking about the other guy as being the enemy. We can't continue to do that, or we won't have a viable nation."

Mr. Bond also described an environment in which blacks and whites are driven apart.

"We've come a long way, made some progress, but now we're slipping back," Mr. Bond said. "When you compare race relations over the last 20-odd years, you see a hardening of attitudes. Race is just as much a part of our politics."

But Mr. Bond also sees tremendous opportunities that did not exist when he was a young man in the 1960s. This gives him faith that blacks and whites can overcome the divisions.

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