It was a fund-raising dinner with the usual socializing and nice things said about the honoree, who was receiving a special award for his contributions.
But the political overtones could be heard strong and clear last night as nearly 1,000 guests attended the fifth annual dinner of the Joint Center for Political Studies at the Washington Hilton.
Vernon E. Jordan Jr., former head of the National Urban League, had barely put down his special citation before he began a scorching critique of the Reagan administration.
"The New Federalism should be labeled the New Meanness," Jordan told the audience, pointing to "deep cuts in the social programs that we fought for."
The civil rights leader called for a new coalition to remedy the "color-blind misery" that he charged was touching both blacks and whites as a result of Reaganomics and the administration's policies.
Earlier, Mayor Marion Barry warned of the erosion of gains in the changing political and economic climate of the Reagan administration. And Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center, mourned what he called the loss of compassion by a "new breed of political pragmatists who argue that ideas have value only in terms of their practical consequences."
The Joint Center for Political Studies, which grew out of a joint venture by Howard University and psychologist-educator Kenneth Clark's Metropolitan Applied Research Center, was organized to serve primarily as a resource and technical assistance center for blacks being elected to public office.
It is becoming a national research center on minority participation in politics and public policy--what one staff members calls "a kind of black think-tank or black Brookings."
One of the studies due for release later this year will look into the experience of blacks in military service. It was begun before the recent release of a government report, showing blacks scoring below whites on tests commissioned by the Pentagon.
"There are still myths about blacks in the military service," observed Wendell Freeland, chairman of the board of governors of the Joint Center.
"I remember that blacks weren't supposed to be able to fly planes in the early part of World War II. Then some of us were allowed and they justified it by saying we could see better at night. I suppose you can come up with data purporting to show that every black person in the military is an idiot."
Guest of honor Jordan, a commanding figure in size (6-foot-4 inches) and stature in the civil rights movement for the last 20 years, resigned at the end of December after 10 years as head of the National Urban League. Jordan now handles mostly coprorate cases for the Washington law firm that includes Robert Strauss, former Democratic national chairman.
Coretta Scott King introduced Jordan for the award presentation. She said she recently recorded two civil right songs. Still ahead are plans for a freedom concert, with dance interpretation, tracing her husband's civil rights leadership from Montgomery to Memphis, "to the assassination, which will be most difficult."
King, accompanied by a woman bodyguard, said she wasn't afraid for herself but "does have to think of her family and their worries."
"Daddy King insisted that I have a bodyguard with me," she said.