The familiar voice filled the hotel room, exhorting that the moral test of a good government was not, who was "first with the Soviets, but who is first in justice, education, housing and health." Many applauded the words of the late Hubert Humphrey, right in the same place they had applauded the same speech at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights dinner in 1977.
And when the recording, complete with scratches and applause track, urged, "let's be restless, let's keep score," the words seemed prophetic. On that night four years ago, this audience was on a political high, mindful that social justice wasn't a closed case, but confident that they had trustworthy friends in the White House. Now, after 100 days of cautious criticism and bargaining with the new powers of Ronald Reagan's administration, this group, which has truly become outsiders, has changed its tone. Watching the procession of nearly 500 quick smiles and groaning comments come into the LCCR's annual dinner last night, veteran civil rights lawyer Frank Pohlhaus said, "They are here out of panic."
On the dais at the Washington Hilton Hotel, both of the evening's honorees, Elanor Holmes Norton, the former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, spoke of a rapidly expanding coalition of concern. Kirkland mentioned that a group to protest the Reagan budget had expanded to 195 organizations. Norton commented that the LCCR had always knew when to fight, "and now it is time. James Baldwin said in 'The Fire Next Time,' 'everything now we must assume is in our hands'. . . we must let them know we are like a chain-link fence. They must take us all together."
In assessing the Reagan policies so far, the critics seemed to have lost any reserve of patience. Ray Marshall, secretary of labor under Carter, quickly denounced the Republican administration's inflation and monetary policy. "And if you are looking for cost-effectiveness, a CETA job cost less than $10,000. A public works job might cost $50,000 . . . They are weakening the government," said Marshall. "At first Reagan promised an unpainful solution, which is what Margaret Thatcher said, and now she says it's painful. A lot more people are realizing that here."
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the president's speech to the Congress earlier this week hadn't changed his mind that "some groups are having their belts tightened more than others." Even though the polls are showing a whopping approval rating for Reagan, Stuart Eizenstat, the Carter domestic adviser, said the frustrations will emerge. "Their basic thrust is that government is the problem and because the Democrats did not provide an answer to stagflation, the people are seeking another answer. Although it is different, I don't think it will be effective."
The dinner also marked the changing of the guard of the LCCR, an umbrella organization of 150 groups, from the eminent civil rights lobbyist Clarence Mitchell to the new chairman, Benjamin Hooks. Hooks, who is also the executive director of the NAACP, drew hearty applause when he quoted Winston Churchill quoting Claude McKay's "if we must die," and then quoted another familiar call to arms, "if not now when, if not you who."
And just in case the angry energy fell on deaf ears, Kirkland reminded everyone that the labor movement had survived 100 years, the NAACP nearly 72, and the LCCR nearly 31 years, and comforted, "we have learned there is no such thing as final defeat." The civil rights battles of the 1980s, he said, are clear: "They are detailed in the budget cuts."