The TV cameras started to fill up the corners. Battalions of press hung out in the lobby. They knew something. And they knew something before many of the guests.
"The mayor?" DeLores Tucker said early in the evening. "Making an announcement right now? That can't be. The mayor is here. He is here. He's already flown in."
She meant Dinkins. David N. Dinkins, the mayor of New York City. He came to Washington last night to receive a Bethune-DuBois award at the Omni-Shoreman hotel -- along with three other distinguished black leaders -- but Tucker, president of the Bethune-DuBois Fund, said she'd just have to see Mayor Marion Barry's videotaped remarks later on. There were other folks to talk about tonight. Folks -- Dinkins, Daisy Bates, Marc Stepp and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) -- to remember and honor and applaud.
"Our young people need these role models," she said of the honorees, "to touch and feel and hear, and to inspire them. To teach them the right uses of power, and to help them learn how to guide this nation."
Dinkins came to the VIP reception room, where the big head table was being organized -- which would eventually include Jesse Jackson, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown, Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Del. Walter Fauntroy -- and he found Daisy Bates to hug right away.
"Ahhhhhhhh. Mayor Dinkins!" she squealed from her wheelchair being pushed by her godson, LeEric Wallace Calloway. It was the kind of huge, huge scream and squeal that makes a room of people turn around and want to cheer. Bates looked sweet, but strong -- like an NAACP leader and a woman who single-handedly led the fight for the integration of Little Rock High School way back in 1957.
"I'm one of the Little Rock Nine," said Ernest Green -- and he meant one of nine black students whom Bates took into Little Rock High. He's a Washingtonian now -- a senior vice president and investment banker at Shearson Lehman Hutton. "But I get back," he said, "to Little Rock and to see Daisy at least once a year."
Since Barry was expected at the awards dinner -- and since it was a room full of highly quotable black leaders -- members of the press were swarming as soon as everybody sat down for salad. Five TV cameras and countless crew organized themselves in a circle just to the right of the dais, and Dinkins agreed to give a few moments of "reaction" to Barry's announcement that he would not seek reelection.
"I'm confident," said Dinkins, "that he's given much thought to this, and his feelings about his family and his city. It's a very personal decision."
Walter Fauntroy came next. Caught in the lobby while walking in to dinner, he said: "This was a very difficult decision. And I want to commend him for facing himself, his family and his city first." Jackson was hit twice -- as he arrived and during the dinner.
He also broke the news in unscheduled remarks to the crowd of 200 or so gathered.
"The battles that we now hope they win in South Africa," he said, "we have already won. But not by many people in this room... . But one of those battles was won by Marion Barry, and we can't forget that."
Barry "means so much to us," he said, "and so our hearts hang heavy tonight."
A few tables were sparsely populated. "They're probably around their television sets at home," said one guest. "It's a very serious time for the city. A very serious night in Washington."
The awards were handed out -- one by one. Or rather, they were hoisted up. It takes two people to lift one. The award -- a bronze portrait bust of both Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women and Bethune-Cookman College, and W.E.B. DuBois, the first black PhD graduate from Harvard University and a founder of the NAACP -- is an awesome sight.
Civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis took his. Marc Stepp, former international vice president of the United Auto Workers and current executive director of the University of Detroit's Institute for Urban and Community Affairs, took his.
"First I'm putting it in Gracie Mansion, where I live," said Dinkins. "Because that's where Nelson Mandela is coming, and I want him to see it."
But as he left -- for the 9 o'clock shuttle to New York -- Dinkins looked at the sculpture and said: "Can you ship it?"
"Thank you very much," said Bates when she accepted hers. And a woman's voice cried out from a dinner table. "We thank you!," she said. "Very much."