How have the men and women who went from street protests to powerful posts in Washington's local government fared as compassionate leaders? Have they differed from politicians whose early careers weren't fired by the philosophy and experiences of the civil rights movement? Are they more attentive to the problems of the poor?
This week's edition of "Frontline," titled "In the Shadow of the Capitol," which will be aired tonight at 8 on Channel 26, tackles those tough questions.
They are difficult to compress even for a scholarly forum, and even more difficult to visualize for an hour of prime-time consumption. But the program, written and narrated by Washington journalist Charles Cobb, generally presents a thoughtful discussion, free of most political rhetoric.
And, for the viewer outside Washington, the arguments are well framed with crisp visuals of news conferences, campaign rallies, food lines and tenant meetings. There are also interviews with Mayor Marion Barry and Deputy Mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson.
Have they abandoned their values of 20 years ago, values that challenged the status quo of black and white leadership and became yardsticks for judging their peers?
Cobb tackles that directly. In a way this is a personal story for Cobb, who, as he says, "was forged " with Barry, Donaldson and others in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. "If solutions are possible" to the problems of homelessness, poverty and crime, Cobb says, "I would like to think the SNCC veterans have the best chance of finding them." I suspect that the principals wouldn't have talked so candidly to anyone but Cobb.
Donaldson says of his position, "Can I use it to leverage, to help people? The answer is yes." But later he suggests, "If you are saying we as a people are failing to meet the needs of our broad community base, of course we are ." John Wilson, a member of the City Council and former SNCC worker, asks, "What effect have I had on poor people? . . . I have been ineffective."
Evaluating the Barry and Donaldson records are Juan Williams, a reporter for The Washington Post, who covered the Barry government for four years; Douglas Moore, a former member of the City Council; Gaston Neal, a poet and activist; Mitch Snyder, the leader of the Community for Creative Non-Violence; Kimi Gray, a local tenant organizer; and Ben Martin, an elderly sage.
Snyder, describing the two cities of Washington, the city of the poor and the city of the tourist, says, "If the folks who have the power and control have anything to say they will continue to exist side by side . . . The reality is: What we've got is a bunch of politicians."
Cobb also deals with the issue of whether the poor are permanently doomed. He handles it judiciously at a time when some talk shows are trotting out the homeless like fashion designers.
The show concludes that the Washington leadership might be more effective if a new generation of Barrys and Donaldsons existed and exerted pressure on their leaders. In the last 10 minutes, Cobb joins a discussion with correspondent Jessica Savitch, Harvard University student Eugene Rivers and NAACP president Benjamin Hooks. Rivers tells them that organizing in areas of crime prevention and housing is indeed the priority of a younger generation, and not to be so condemning.