I'M GOING TO A MARCH today, just like in the 60s. Only this march won't be for civil rights, or against war. This march down Pennsylvania Avenue is designed as a dramatic show of support for America's 107 traditionally black colleges.Tens of thousands of students from around the country are expected to show up. Its chief promoter is broadcaster Tony Brown, host of "Tony Brown's Journal" shown locally on Channel 4. It's such a good idea that being against it is like being against motherhood, apple pie and God, and it would seem most blacks at least would feel that way.
But this march has become embroiled in controversy, with the Howard University newspaper and the Howard University Student Association raising objections on ideological grounds, some blacks questioning its emphasis and strategy, while still others are objecting to the inclusion of beauty queen competition and fancy-footed marching bands. Even Ronald Reagan, no great friend in the black community, has further muddied the waters by endorsing the event.
This really becomes an anatomy of how a well-sanctioned issue has become extremely complex. It shows how complicated the "black community" is with its different sub-groups taking differing views of different realities. The splintering that divides this apple-pie issue was present to an extent in the recently ended Congressional Black Caucus meeting here and the Democratic National Convention last summer, and it shows there is no simple black position.
The problem with the black colleges is that they lack sufficient money, students and support, and some are being closed in the name of desegregation. Under pressure from blacks, President Carter issued an executive order last month increasing aid to black colleges, though Brown claims the president's own administration has ignored his earlier directives.
Opinion divides on whose original idea it was to highlight these colleges with a National Black College Day -- Brown's or the National Organization of Black University and College Students. Brown says it was his, but some NORBUC members say he "stole" the notion while others talk vaguely of coming to the idea "simultaneously." But there's unanimity on the fact that Brown brought the weight of his media exposure and considerable contacts when he took control of organizing the effort. Also, he had already done two documentaries on the subject.
The president of the Howard University Student Association objected to Brown's acceptance of financial support for the event from Pepsico, Inc., because he said the company deals with the racist regime in South Africa.Responds Brown: "What they're arguing is ideological purity, which I don't think we as black people can afford . . . . "
That organization and others also thought competing bands and beauty queens gave too frivolous a tone to the event.Some felt the students should lobby for increased support instead and attempt to pry loose more research money, for example, for their badly-strapped institutions.
The Hilltop, Howard University student newspaper, wrote that the controversy surrounding today's Black College Day '80 is so intense that it "threatens the original intention."
Gerald L. Durley, whose company, Perspectives International, is producing the first full length comprehensive film on the contributions of these institutions to America, thinks putting the emphasis on "saving" the colleges may ultimately backfire: "When something is dying, you don't send your sons and daughters there nor do you put your financial resources there . . . It puts in the connotation [that] here these struggling black folks come with their hands out again, and we're trying to save them."
Dr. Elias Blake, president of Clark College in Atlanta, believes on balance that the march "is a very good thing" but cautions that black colleges "are not at death's door and we don't intend to be near death's door in the near future."
The event has taken on a distinctly political tone with an endorsement by GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who further promises a "high level representative" will be on hand to speak for him today. The White House has kicked the chore down to the Department of Education. A White House aide was slightly baffled that the request didn't come to the executive mansion directly rather than via the Carter reelection committee, especially in light of Carter's oft-stated support of these historically black institutions.
The resulting confusion has been disruptive and prompted people to take sides. Some college presidents were initially undecided about whether students should come, but Brown has successfully smoothed the waters and now is predicting that as many as a half million may march.
So why are people concerned?
They're grumbling not about the idea of a black college day, but about strategy.
There is no clear bottom line here. As a media personality, Brown has succeeded where others have failed in dynamically highlighting a problem that needs national attention. Always controversial, he is a man of strong views whose documentary television series about black people is sponsored by Pepsico, makers of Pepsi Cola, a company whose South African connections seem not to bother him.
Conscious of the pros and cons, Clark's Dr. Blake is nonetheless happy to see the level of consciousness of his own students rise dramatically. He says: "It's given them a way to sharply focus their concerns. They're getting a higher sense of consciousness about their personal stake" in having these institutions thrive.
So I'll be at the march today, and so will the Howard students who've voiced their concerns and received back the kind of answers that satisfied them. I think the questions and concerns over strategy are a good sign. You've seen those public service ads soliciting aid for the United Negro College Fund? They say, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." I don't think we'll have to say that about these young people.