Right before the 1,000 guests of the National Urban Coalition enjoyed a late steak supper, Veronica Maz, founder of Martha's Table in Washington, one of the organization's honorees last night, reminded the guests of their fortune.
One of her projects, she reported, was "right at this moment delivering food to the homeless. In the last six months we have distributed 80,000 sandwiches and soup, all donated."
The annual dinner of the Coalition, this year reaching its 16th anniversary and largest gathering ever, is usually a somber temperature-reading of the plight of the country's cities.
And this year, reflective discussions on urban political strength and the possibility of a presidential bid by a black candidate vied with the tough topics of homelessness, hunger, crime and racial divisions.
The racial polarization in the recent mayoral election in Chicago, said Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, "sent out new messages, that the Kerner Commission observation of 15 years ago that racism is the number-one problem still exists, and that people of good will can work together to build a stronger community."
Height, another of the 16 honorees, also has been active in the closed-door, but highly publicized, discussions about a black presidential bid. "There is general agreement that a black is a viable candidate," said Height, discussing last weekend's meeting in Chicago of black organization presidents.
M. Carl Holman, president of the Coalition, is one of the chief architects of the presidential movement. "This is a slow snowball getting bigger," said Holman. "Even those who didn't like the idea of a black presidential bid seven months ago are excited about the impact it could have on voter registration and brokering with the major parties."
Eddie Williams, another guest at the dinner at the Sheraton Washington and president of the Joint Center for Political Studies, said, "It's vibrant--a poll released by David Garth today shows Jesse Jackson third in preference behind Walter Mondale and John Glenn. Even though there isn't a consensus on whether to run a candidate, there is consensus that blacks have a part to play, and there is a sense that the time is right."
George Dalley, Mondale's deputy campaign manager, agreed that the strategy talks were exciting. "It's good for the Democratic Party and good for Mondale. If we can register 2 million new black voters, I am convinced we have a good chance to get them."
No one was saying that a national black candidate or the growing strength of the black mayors, such as Chicago's Harold Washington, would solve some of the desperate problems of the cities. But successful gleams of light were saluted through the group's awards. Among the area's award winners were Thomas Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and Bruce Johnson and Mark Seeger, both of WDVM (Channel 9).
Award winner Alicia Baro of the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women was honored for her work in Miami, which includes a health clinic that serves 3,000 Latino and Haitian families a year.
The Haas and Goldman families of San Francisco's Levi-Strauss and Co. have helped families make rent deposits or buy household furnishings. "We are helping families help themselves," said Mimi Haas.