They didn't just gripe, they did something good


December 21, 1997|By Norris West

CLAY HAMMOND didn't just complain when he saw what he thought was media and public bias in two multiple-birth cases.

Oh yes, Mr. Hammond did some griping. He complained that newspapers used plenty of ink and broadcasters filled the airwaves covering the McCaughey septuplets in Iowa while practically ignoring the births of sextuplets to an African-American couple in Washington.

He found it appalling that the same baby-products companies and other parts of corporate America that showered the white family in Iowa with charitable donations turned down requests to help the Washington family.

But complaining didn't stop Mr. Hammond from getting busy. The one-time Columbia resident -- he graduated from Glenelg High in 1972 -- urged churches, social organizations, college groups and others in the African-American community to contribute.

He played a significant role in an effort led by the Washington-based group Sisters In Touch to raise money and hope for the babies born May 8 to Linden and Jacqueline Thompson.

Did the media and, therefore, the public respond differently to the McCaugheys than to the Thompsons because of race?

Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey are a middle-class white family with accents as flat as the Midwestern terrain. The Thompsons are a black working-class family with Caribbean accents.

Media and public fascination with the Iowa couple certainly was understandable. It was the first-ever birth of septuplets in America, and it happened in a place not known for being a hotbed of news. The state's governor urged the business community to build the family a house and gifts came poured in to give the tiny family from Carlisle, Iowa, perhaps more help than welfare has ever given any family.

The nation's front pages were filled with the incredible story, which corporate donors like Procter & Gamble astutely milked for its publicity value. P&G contributed a lifetime supply of disposable diapers.

But the Thompson family's story is pretty remarkable, too. It was the first birth of sextuplets to an African-American family. The Thompsons were living in a one-bedroom apartment, the father was working two jobs and, unlike the McCaugheys, the Washington couple did not use fertility drugs to conceive their children: Octavia, Stella, Emily, Richard and AnnMarie. The sixth baby was stillborn.

The Washington Post relegated the story to its Metro section and a few other news organizations ran brief news items.

Mr. Hammond, who now lives in Dover, Del., was furious. So were other listeners of the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show," a program of news and comedy bits that airs in 95 markets and can be heard on WHUR-FM, when a caller phoned in to juxtapose the two cases.

A member of Sisters In Touch, a group of eight African-American women, called the radio show to emphasize the differences between the media and public reactions and to urge listeners to help the Thompsons.

They took corporations to task. An example: Sisters In Touch said members contacted Procter & Gamble after the sextuplets were born and asked the company to contribute baby products, but the Cincinnati-based giant declined.

"They sent back a card, similar to what you might receive after sending a resume," recalled Lynda Bugg, the group's chairwoman.

No publicity value

The reality is that the lack of news surrounding the Thompson sextuplets' birth meant there was no publicity value for P&G and other corporations, whose contributions are by no means sheer altruism.

The fortunes of the Thompsons changed with the Nov. 19 births of the McCaughey septuplets. After the caller to the Tom Joyner show compared the treatment of the two cases, the show's host pounded the issue and drummed up contributions from individual and business donors.

Mr. Hammond, whose family was among the first residents of Bryant Woods, says he was getting dressed for an appointment one morning when he heard the radio show and became "impassioned."

"I just took it upon myself to try to reach churches and other radio stations, community organizations and newspapers," he says.

He had a guilt pitch to college students: "You're going to spend $110 on a pair of Nikes and you can't send this family five dollars?"

He had a guilt pitch to African-American organizations: "You're going to spend hundreds of dollars on a downtown hotel and can't send this family some money?"

Mr. Hammond doesn't know how much his efforts paid off, but he believes they helped the cause. Sisters In Touch reports that the Thompson family now has received a van from Chevrolet, that lifetime supply of diapers from Procter & Gamble and a commitment from the Freddie Mac Foundation to provide a new home.

But none of this came about by just complaining about the disparate treatment. It takes action to improve the lives of children in need like the Thompsons.

(To contribute to the sextuplets, call 301-499-8976.)

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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