"This is the most hostile administration since George Wallace's last one in Alabama," said Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher, in the midst of the Washington Hilton lobby. All around him was a marathon of debates and gloomy discussions, contrasting starkly with the opulent parade of women in black taffeta knickers and men in wing-collar dress shirts. "As black Americans, the only thing we have is one another," said National Council of Negro Women president Dorothy Height. "What is going on," said Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.), is "immoral, indecent and wrong."
The 11th Annual Congressional Black Caucus weekend had a clear target this time, the dramatic political changes caused by the election of Ronald Reagan. The result for the country has been a sweeping reordering of legislative priorities and the perception of attacks against minority gains. The result at the Caucus weekend was a subtle shift away from a mostly social orientation and toward a more vocal reexamination of purpose.
"Everywhere I went today people were saying, 'I don't like what the Justice Department is doing on affirmative action,' " said Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.), the dean of the Caucus. "We have an opportunity to respond, now we have to do something."
In the hallways and congressional hearing rooms, the issues ranged from how to "strike back" against the administration, to, more specifically, why black America's buying power (which makes it the ninth largest nation in the world), can't be spent to start a few banks, support some congressional races or endow a black college. "We have enough money to help Jesse Helms find another job in North Carolina," said one speaker.
Not since 1971, when actor-activist Ossie Davis, at the first Caucus fund-raising dinner, pleaded for new directions with the words, "It's not the man, it's the plan," has a strong manifesto been issued. In subsequent years, the speeches challenged public policy, goaded the White House, even when the president was standing right there. But most of the time the socializing had overshadowed the substance.
This year the Caucus has carved a stronger activist role in Congress, principally through its alternative budget legislation, and its organizers tried to focus the weekend on such critical issues as building a black leadership family.
"We are taking the show business out," said Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.), chairman of the 18-member Caucus, as he issued a challenge to organize a network to compete with the direct-mail organization of conservative Richard Viguerie and join with similar-interest coalitions.
True, there were fewer entertainers than in past years, and only fleeting glimpses of actors Whitman Mayo, Calvin Lockhart and Thalmus Rasulala. But there were still some who felt the events were more circus than caucus. On Friday afternoon, a group called "Get High on Life" passed out blue leaflets, calling the Black "Carcass" weekend "an annual extravaganza in vanity." In the middle of the terrace lobby of the hotel on Saturday night, Lydia Martin of Washington, D.C., sat with a hand-painted sign, which read, "The CBC and the $150 the cost of the dinner make me feel like a second-class citizen." Nearby a man was selling lists of the receptions for $1.
For some, the need for black solidarity outweighed the criticisms. For many the weekend was guilt-ridden, defensive and subdued. The parties were crowded, some as lavish as Nigerian businessman Isyaku Ibrahim's black-tie affair at the Four Seasons and the CBS Records party for entertainer Patti LaBelle. LaBelle was the principal singer on Saturday night, following an impromptu version of George Benson's "The Greatest" by Fauntroy, a performance which raised again the questions of style versus substance.
Jesse Jackson was sitting on a counter in the Hilton lobby, prompting a few jokes about "Rent a Leader," but actually taking care of business. Financial analysts, publishers, lawyers and others came up to offer help for Jackson's various programs. Jackson had a staff person ready with answers. "The real advantage of this annual black reunion is that people find what they are looking for. If you want to criticize, if you want to be involved in esteem-building, if you want to go to serious workshops, you can. It's like going to a university for a weekend," said Jackson.
Mae Cunningham, who runs an adult foster care home in Detroit, has been coming to the Caucus weekend for 10 years. Having changed into her evening gown for the dinner, she was glad the efficiency of the weekend had improved. Her worries about her clients' cuts in dental payments and recreation funds hadn't been eased but she liked Rep. Mitchell's proposal for a legal resource bank for small businesses. She thought her $600 expenses were well spent. "The signficance of this is to help leadership and train future leadership."
Nowhere was the conflict of the weekend more apparent than at the Black Women's Agenda Luncheon on "Power, Politics, Possibilities and Projections." Barbara Williams, the outgoing staff director of the Caucus, told the audience of 300, mostly women, "A lot of people using plastic and Ultrasuede are about to lose their jobs." A woman who fit the description said, "Lighten up, Barbara." But the talk about keeping priorities on track continued.
Patricia Russell, an attorney and division chief at the Federal Communications Commission, said, "We are the well-educated, with the first-rate wardrobes, shopping at the posh stores with designer signature this and that, with purses and luggage, a status car with personalized plates. We have personal lawyers, consultants, accountants and caterers . . . We have two numbers at home, with a little click in the phone telling us we have another call coming."
Later on Friday, a midnight fashion show, the first of two, played up the season's glitter, opulence and fantasy. Whether the show was totally out of step with reality was quickly dismissed. Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) said, "Should people be sitting in the dark? There are enough times during the weekend to be serious."
In the closed-door sessions of the black leadership meetings on Saturday, the real work continued. Rep. Harold Washington (D-Ill.) reported, "We didn't waste any time analyzing the circumstances, we know what it is. We admitted the leadership was diffused, that we didn't need competition. We called for a national mobilization to strike back against Reagan economics and the conservative, racist movements in the country." Some of the leaders in the meeting thought the term "strike back" was too militant but at the end of the evening, Jesse Jackson could say, "We have rocks in our sling shots."