Cosby avoids debate at NAACP gathering

Sticking to comedy, entertainer sidesteps controversy about youths

July 14, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Bill Cosby maintained his image as the easygoing head of television's Huxtable family last night and sidestepped the controversy that has dogged him since he criticized black youngsters for using foul language and failing to respect education.

Cosby stuck to his trademark comedy routine when he appeared as the featured act for the NAACP's annual convention.

"My grandfather prayed like classical European music: Just when you thought it would end, it would go on forever," he said.

Cosby, who wrote a best-selling book on fatherhood and played Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable on the popular sitcom The Cosby Show, did not continue his verbal spanking of low-income black youngsters and their parents.

More than 7,000 people packed the ballroom of the Pennsylvania Convention Center to hear Cosby, 67, who grew up in a housing project here and carved out a career as a comedian, actor and author.

"I didn't grow up poor, I grew up broke," Cosby said of his impoverished background.

A philanthropist long interested in academics, Cosby holds a master's degree and a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He funds scholarships and has contributed more than $20 million to Spelman College in Atlanta.

On May 17, at a Washington gala commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated public schools, Cosby criticized low-income blacks who give their children $500 sneakers instead of books.

On July 1, Cosby embellished his comments at a Rainbow/Push Coalition Convention in Chicago.

Cosby's comments sparked a controversy that followed him to Philadelphia.

Around the convention center this week, many of those attending the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People's annual convention have been quick to defend Cosby's comments. Others, including NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, have been critical.

Bond said he thought Cosby's remarks at the Washington gala were out of place.

"This was supposed to be a celebratory event," Bond said. "His remarks were overly harsh, and I thought they lacked any nuance."

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said he agreed with the core message of Cosby's comments in May, but he disagreed with his delivery.

"When he finished giving that speech I hugged him and said. `Bill, I'm feeling you,'" he said. "I understand his points. I would have said it differently, though."

During a weeklong convention that included a keynote address from Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and such civil rights pioneers as Bond, Mfume and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, it has been Cosby's address that it seems convention-goers have been buzzing about the most.

G.I. Johnson, Baltimore NAACP branch president, said he respected Cosby's comments because Cosby has always been an advocate for the disadvantaged in the black community.

"I think a lot of us are listening and paying attention," said Johnson, 67. "I'm raising two grandsons and I know about the things that Cosby is saying. I demand my grandsons keep their pants on their waist. I demand respect. I demand they go to school and get a good education."

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