At the CBC Conference, A Whirlwind of Emotions

Bishop Paul S. Morton of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in New Orleans sings at the CBC prayer breakfast.
Bishop Paul S. Morton of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in New Orleans sings at the CBC prayer breakfast. (By Hamil Harris -- The Washington Post)
By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 25, 2005

It was automatic, the Congressional Black Caucus's decision to shift the focus of its annual legislative conference, being held here just weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Panels were pulled together on topics ranging from the storm's impact on children to rebuilding New Orleans. A candlelight vigil was organized and fundraising for survivors began immediately. Poverty has always been at the core of the CBC's agenda. Now Katrina had blown back the curtain on an issue that the caucus had been talking about for decades.

Washington Convention Center would be the first rendezvous for many black intellectual, religious, celebrity and financial heavyweights after the storm: more than 3,000 registered participants, all haunted by the pictures of those left behind -- so many of them poor, so many of them black.

But it would have been hard to prepare for just how raw emotions would be, how deep the pain over that old feeling of being last and left out, how sharp the anger and the suspicion. Could the city really be rebuilt without many of the people that Katrina washed away, as so many seem to fear? And what about the opportunity there now? For all the death and devastation, there is money to be made, jobs to be had in the rebuilding. Could they be left to outside contractors who don't even know the streets that gave birth to jazz?

The four-day conference did maintain its other schedule, too, its panels on building young political leadership, on grooming women leaders, on issues such as education and Social Security. And that social buzz, the celebrity sighting, the warm reunion-like spirit the weekend has become known for, was present too.

At last night's annual awards dinner, hosted by actors Alfre Woodard and James Avery, there were those who still wanted their pictures taken with Lynn Whitfield and Harry Belafonte, or to shake the hands of Barack Obama and John Kerry.

But there was no escaping the conference's river of unscripted Katrina moments.

"People have to have a forum to express themselves," Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson said after a workshop on rebuilding New Orleans. "They feel very deeply that there has been an injustice against the African American community. . . . There was no way to control it."

So many times last week, it was as if a levee had broken right there in the convention center.

* * *

The weekend, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, is the Super Bowl of black politics and activism. This is where Wyclef and Georgia Rep. John Lewis can bump into each other at the top of an escalator, where Jesse Jackson can be strolling down one hall, and around the way Al Sharpton can be posing for pictures. Where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can appear at a town hall meeting on Thursday and John Kerry can spend Friday making the rounds, while Kofi Annan holds sway on a panel about Africa.

When the caucus was founded in 1969, there were 13 black members of Congress. Now there are 43, including Illinois' Obama, the only African American in the Senate.

Last night CBC Chairman Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) was seated beside Bob Johnson and Debra Lee, president and CEO of BET, one of the night's honorees. The caucus, Watt said, will be putting together a legislative package based in part on the conference and plans to request a meeting with President Bush. "You realize that people's nerves are at the raw edge," he said. "At every brain trust you see how Katrina has impacted lives. You go to an energy discussion, one on housing, on contracting opportunities, there's an aspect of Katrina there."

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