. . . but one would be better than two

September 01, 1998|By Trevor W. Coleman

THIS COUNTRY was founded by people who got organized and mobilized behind a cause. Such grass-roots activism also has been behind just about every major social change in U.S. history.

So it is heartening to see young African Americans -- particularly college students -- pulling together to draw attention to issues that affect them, such as access to education, fair treatment within the criminal justice system and discrimination. The crisis-like conditions that continue to stifle progress for so many young blacks spawned the idea of a Million Youth March -- which makes good sense.

But two marches, organized by competing interests in different cities on the same day, is a bad idea. The competing events during Labor Day weekend in Atlanta and New York will be divisive, redundant and maybe even detrimental to progress.

According to the Children's Defense Fund, 68 percent of America's children in poverty are black or Hispanic, and in a 20-year period from 1976 to 1996, the overall income of African Americans and Hispanics dropped 13 percent.

Unemployment has reached 28.6 percent for black youths, with unemployment among high school dropouts at 42.5 percent, according to the latest "State of America's Children" report from the fund.

Clearly these young people need to be encouraged to develop meaningful and comprehensive strategies to deal with their alienation from the economic mainstream.

But they shouldn't be forced to choose between the Million Youth March in New York and the Million Youth Movement in Atlanta.

The Atlanta event is being organized by a network of college-age activists from around the country and has the backing of long-established groups, including the NAACP, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and the Nation of Islam. Most of the religious and political establishment has endorsed the event, including Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.

A full endorsement

On the other hand, the march planned for New York's Harlem is being organized largely by the race-baiting Khalid Muhummad and his lawyer/counselor Malik Zulu Shabazz. It has been endorsed by many New York City activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and, interestingly, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of the world-famous Abyssinian Baptist Church, who is usually much more circumspect.

Earlier in the year, the two groups tried to coordinate their efforts and establish a single unifying event. The student-led group, however, wanted a more inclusive event, with people of different backgrounds. Organizers were disturbed by the rhetoric and agenda of the group led by Mr. Muhummad and decided they could not work with them, said Ronald Walters, director of the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland College Park.

Mr. Muhummad, a former member of the Nation of Islam, gained notoriety a few years ago for giving vitriolic and hate-filled speeches against white people, Jews in particular, preceding, on the eve of and after the Million Man March in October 1995.

Key opposition

Unfortunately, the planned march in New York promises to be much of the same. Citing a potential for violence and dubbing it a "hate march," Mayor Rudolph Giuliani denied a permit for the Harlem march. Mr. Giuliani is already extremely unpopular among black New Yorkers, and his overreaction has only exacerbated tensions and played into Mr. Muhammad's hands, allowing him to charge Mr. Giuliani with discriminatory and racist behavior.

The mayor's condescending behavior has prompted a lawsuit by organizers of the march, who claim that their right to free speech and free assembly has been violated. Mr. Giuliani's subsequent intemperate remarks have only emboldened Mr. Muhummad, who is now suggesting the possibility of a confrontation between the marchers and New York police.

This is tragic.

One of the major themes of both marches is the unfairness of the criminal justice system and police brutality. Another is fighting attacks on affirmative action and economic exclusion.

Those are issues that resonate with black youths, from the hallowed hallways of Harvard to the corners of Compton. It really does not matter to many of these young people who is leading the march, so long as it's going in the right direction. And they have the right to assemble and assert their views wherever they choose.

The fundamental problem is that Mr. Muhammad is so immersed in anti-Semitism and intolerance that it distracts from any meaningful analysis of public policy he may have to offer.

Young African Americans need to hear intellectually honest critiques of our social and economic structure that exploits class, race and gender, and how they can manage to survive within it while working to change it.

The last thing they need to hear is the morally bankrupt, hypocritical rhetoric of a so-called leader who rages against racism, then uses it to manipulate their fears and naivete.

His use of young black men and women as potential cannon fodder in his battle of wills with New York's mayor is reprehensible.

Black American youths face real problems worth fighting against. But high moral ground and opportunities for coalition building are lost when demagogues such as Mr. Muhummad are allowed to exploit that pain for their own self-aggrandizement.

One thoughtful Million Youth event -- such as the one in Atlanta -- would better serve young black America.

Trevor W. Coleman is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

Pub Date: 9/01/98

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