Town meeting focuses on conversation as way to better race relations Session held as part of national initiative

May 01, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF

What happened last night was virtually unthinkable a generation ago: Blacks, whites, Asians and Indians sat in a church together.

And they talked about race relations.

But there was no cause for celebration among the more than 100 people who gathered at the historic Orchard Street Church in downtown Baltimore and participated in an old-fashioned town meeting, one of several held across the country yesterday to gather information for the President's Initiative on Race.

"We still have a ways to go," said the Rev. Chester Wickwire, chaplain emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University.

There was little argument.

The Baltimore Urban League, working with the governor's office, the YWCA of Greater Baltimore and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity-Delta Lambda Chapter, sponsored the meeting.

The national dialogue on race was joined by 41 governors, 18 mayors and more than 100 YWCA affiliates.

"We do know that in order to confront the challenges that we face on race relations that we have to start with conversation," Judith Winston, executive director of the President's Race Initiative, said in a conference call before the meeting.

The purpose of the town meeting was to encourage dialogue on race issues. The goal was to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

But one fear expressed was that the history of the struggle for equality was lost on today's youth.

"The '60s no longer have the resonance for young people as they once did," said guest speaker Taylor Branch, a chronicler of the civil rights movement.

Even more, he said, "Americans talk about race in abstractions." Towering figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are hard to find. "We've lost that kind of voice today," Branch said. But, he noted, "This meeting 40 years ago would be a miracle."

Last June, President Clinton called for a one-year national conversation on race.

The president plans to issue a report on the results of the initiative by year's end, or early next year. Critics have called the goals vague. Some say the town meetings have been more monologue than dialogue.

Others, however, say it's a necessary first step.

"I think this is important we be frank with each other," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and moderator of last night's meeting.

Officials of the president's initiative say that they have gone beyond talking. They point to tangible results, including new civil rights enforcement. The fiscal 1999 budget includes $602 million for civil rights enforcement agencies, an increase of $86 million, or more than 16 percent, over last year's funding.

Clinton's budget plan also includes $600 million for the first national plan to help Hispanic-American students stay in school.

Clinton also announced in July a $350 million program to attract people of diverse backgrounds to teach at low-income schools and to improve the quality of training of future teachers.

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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