It was automatic, the Congressional Black Caucus's decision to shift the focus of its annual legislative conference, being held here just weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Panels were pulled together on topics ranging from the storm's impact on children to rebuilding New Orleans. A candlelight vigil was organized and fundraising for survivors began immediately. Poverty has always been at the core of the CBC's agenda. Now Katrina had blown back the curtain on an issue that the caucus had been talking about for decades.
Washington Convention Center would be the first rendezvous for many black intellectual, religious, celebrity and financial heavyweights after the storm: more than 3,000 registered participants, all haunted by the pictures of those left behind -- so many of them poor, so many of them black.
But it would have been hard to prepare for just how raw emotions would be, how deep the pain over that old feeling of being last and left out, how sharp the anger and the suspicion. Could the city really be rebuilt without many of the people that Katrina washed away, as so many seem to fear? And what about the opportunity there now? For all the death and devastation, there is money to be made, jobs to be had in the rebuilding. Could they be left to outside contractors who don't even know the streets that gave birth to jazz?
The four-day conference did maintain its other schedule, too, its panels on building young political leadership, on grooming women leaders, on issues such as education and Social Security. And that social buzz, the celebrity sighting, the warm reunion-like spirit the weekend has become known for, was present too.
At last night's annual awards dinner, hosted by actors Alfre Woodard and James Avery, there were those who still wanted their pictures taken with Lynn Whitfield and Harry Belafonte, or to shake the hands of Barack Obama and John Kerry.
But there was no escaping the conference's river of unscripted Katrina moments.
"People have to have a forum to express themselves," Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson said after a workshop on rebuilding New Orleans. "They feel very deeply that there has been an injustice against the African American community. . . . There was no way to control it."
So many times last week, it was as if a levee had broken right there in the convention center.
The weekend, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, is the Super Bowl of black politics and activism. This is where Wyclef and Georgia Rep. John Lewis can bump into each other at the top of an escalator, where Jesse Jackson can be strolling down one hall, and around the way Al Sharpton can be posing for pictures. Where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can appear at a town hall meeting on Thursday and John Kerry can spend Friday making the rounds, while Kofi Annan holds sway on a panel about Africa.
When the caucus was founded in 1969, there were 13 black members of Congress. Now there are 43, including Illinois' Obama, the only African American in the Senate.
Last night CBC Chairman Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) was seated beside Bob Johnson and Debra Lee, president and CEO of BET, one of the night's honorees. The caucus, Watt said, will be putting together a legislative package based in part on the conference and plans to request a meeting with President Bush. "You realize that people's nerves are at the raw edge," he said. "At every brain trust you see how Katrina has impacted lives. You go to an energy discussion, one on housing, on contracting opportunities, there's an aspect of Katrina there."
On Wednesday night, from Constitution Avenue, head toward the west steps of the Capitol, and the voices of a choir are guiding you past the fences. Soon, scores of lights appear, forming a semicircle before a podium. Ballou High School's choir stands on one side of the podium, and members of the youth choir of Antioch Baptist Church stand on the other, each behind a row of chairs of CBC members. It feels like church on the west steps.
The crowd hears from a family of evacuees. There are songs and prayers.
Jefferson calls for these "candles that we hold to light a way from here back home."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is there, too. She quotes Matthew and Isaiah, "the bricks have fallen down but we will rebuild with dressed stone."
California's Barbara Lee takes the podium and delivers her words over the blare of the city's sirens: "Let us pray," she says, "that we have the courage to seize the moment. Katrina has exposed this bitter divide."
Amens and yeses are murmured through the crowd. Moments later, the dwindling crowd is asked to move closer for a version of "Amazing Grace" and a final prayer.
They close ranks, forming a tight circle, their candles shining, their heads bowed.
The next day, the fireworks go off. First, during the morning town hall meeting, entertainer and activist Belafonte blasts the Democratic Party for seeming surprised at the level of poverty. Later, during a workshop on rebuilding New Orleans, Jackson, Sharpton and others grill Homeland Security officials about suspending the requirements that help certified minority contractors win contracts.
"The issue of minority procurement is one of the hottest issues before the black caucus," says Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.). "We are trying to force our way into the contracts."
The room is packed. The dais is full.
Jefferson opens his workshop Friday by calling on Rep. Barney Frank. One of the key issues is affordable housing, Frank says, which is no guarantee, unless the federal government steps in to offer real help.
"There are people clearly who think building a better New Orleans means building a different New Orleans," Frank says.
"Before we send a couple of people to Mars, let's send people back to New Orleans," he says, to applause.
As Jefferson tries to introduce the next panelist, a man in a plaid shirt, Leroy Paige, stands in the middle of the floor. He raises a finger, politely says "excuse me." Then, "I am an evacuee," he says, "you know, from Katrina?"
Jefferson tries to move on.
"Let the man speak," someone says. Then another, and another until Jefferson relents.
Paige takes the podium. "I am here to tell you, people from New Orleans, we have had to face a hurricane, a flood, be put on airplanes and not know where we were going and when we arrived to have guns put to our faces.
"We are talked about, talked at but no one talks to us."
He is grateful for the help, he says, but goes on about not enough money, about tight restrictions in the D.C. Armory.
"We need some input," he says.
By the time he leaves the room less than 10 minutes later, a crowd follows him into the hallway.
Even though Hurricane Katrina destroyed his New Orleans sanctuary, submerged his home and dispersed his 20,000 congregants across 32 states, Bishop Paul S. Morton, pastor of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, still has a song in his heart during Saturday's prayer breakfast. Tears run down his face as he is given the microphone, though he had not been on the program to speak.
"For every mountain you brought me over, for every trial you brought me through . . . for this I give you praise," he sings. There is spiritual meaning to everything that has happened to his city, he says. "We lost our main church in New Orleans East, my house is under water, but I think that all things happen for a reason," Morton says. "This exposes the poverty in the city of New Orleans and it is going to be better now that it has been exposed."
Last night's dinner opens with a song, too, Wintley Phipps singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
People are there in black tie and they listen intently as the hosts and Reps. Danny Davis and Sheila Jackson Lee, conference co-chairs, set the evening's tone with their opening remarks, Jackson Lee speaking in a taped message from Texas. Along with BET's Debra Lee, the other honorees include the late publisher John H. Johnson, who receives a posthumous award. There is an emotional slide show and presentation on Katrina, honoring the hurricane workers.
Carol Clark, a county supervisor in New Jersey, says the evening reminds her of the mood of the conference after Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's difficult to kick up your heels," she says, "when you know so many people, African Americans -- and others -- are suffering."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.