They were a small group of 20, at most 25 women, all black, all different ages, and as they lunched on fruit cups and chicken crepes in a small dining room at the Shoreham-Americana, they seemed remote from the children they have decided to help.
And, their leader Dorothy Height acknowledged sadly, they probably are. "The problems that confront us today are so much more grave because the nation thinks they've been solved," she told the gathering.
These were women of accomplishment, an elite corps that heads 21 national groups belonging to the National Council of Negro Women. They met here in Washington last weekend to figure out how their organizations could work together to change the statistics they had heard over and over again: statistics that told them 60 percent of the black teen-aged youths in Detroit are out of school and out of work, and that black girls have more than half the out-of-wedlock babies born to teenagers.
Once again, the women were led by council president Dorothy Height, the gentle-voiced woman who marched across the South in the '60s with the giants of the civil rights movement, who sat in the councils with Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young. Last Monday, after the lunch, she tapped her glass for the women's attention and then she stood to speak, an almost regal figure in dark blue, with a corsage of orchids.
"We believe the time has come when so much we fought for in the civil rights movement in the '60s has not moved forward and so we have decided to take an active hand. There is a tremendous amount of juvenile pregnancy, a tremendous amount of juvenile crime, a tremendous amount of juvenile unemployment. It is symptomatic of what is happening to our children," Height said.
There has been a lot of talk about black teenaged pregnancy, said Height, and she makes it clear she is as fond of talk these days as she was in the past - when sympathetic Southerners told her to wait, Dorothy, the time isn't ripe and when she told them, "If the time isn't ripe, we'll have to ripen the time."
Dorothy Height wants to do things now: she wants centers that will teach black girls to prevent pregnancy and centers that will teach them how to care for their babies and how to get jobs. "What we feel is the need for a positive approach. Who better to do this than the black women in our community?"
The organizations in the National Council of Negro Women have agreed to cooperate in developing programs to help black children and their families and they have targeted 12 cities that need help: Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Newark, New York, Pittsburgh, Washington and Kansas City, Kan. What the organizations will do in each city is to be decided. What is important now is that they have decided to cooperate and have decided to bring about change. These organizations have changed things before.
They will meet again in September, probably when the Black Caucus meets in Washington, in a larger group that will include the women leaders and the people who actually know how to run programs that train young men for jobs, that teach young women and their families how to cope with pregnancy, disease and despair.
They will seek federal money, foundation money and money from their own organizations. They will stress self-reliance, part of the council's motto, in their programs and volunteerism, a smart thing to stress when you have a membership of 4 million women. And they hope to make a change in the statistics that tell the story of other programs that have failed.
"We're privileged. We're the elite," Dr. June Dobbs Butts, an educator on the psychiatry faculty at Howard University, told the luncheon. She stood, as she spoke, a handsome woman with graying hair, and looked around the small room seeing well-educated women, women who had gone beyond college. "What about all the others," she asked them. "the bulk of black people who never get to college, who don't even go to good high schools and junior high schools?
"Our children are being educated in the worst way. They are being taught how to snort coke and I don't mean Coca-Cola."
She spoke of the strength of the black family - the vast resources of uncles, aunts, nieces, cousins and grandparents that are expected to help when a family member is in need - and she spoke of "stabilizing the black family on the basis of its strength."
"Those of us who have received some of these benefits (of education) have to think about the bulk of black people. That's the whole thing about the widening gap between blacks and whites. A few blacks have attained excellence and that makes whites feel better and unless we improve the conditions so that people can use their native intelligence and benefit and grow, then we are part of the problem. It's not enough to expect it to come from whites. We have to do it ourselves," she said later.
Or, as she quoted the Bible to her luncheon listeners, "Who, if not you? When, if not now?"