ONE IS A VETERAN of the streets, the other a veteran of the elite educational suite.
Imogene Stewart is pastor of the Church of What's Happening Now and runs the House of Imogene for battered persons in the inner city Shaw area.
James E. Cheek is the erudite president of Howard University, the "capstone" black institution of learning.
At first glance, Stewart and Cheek would seem to travel on entirely different paths. But look closer.
Imogene Stewart will pack her bags next month to head for conservative black economist. Thomas Sowell's national black alternatives meeting in California. She hopes Sowell will let her help organize a local chapter of his new conservative network, and it's a pretty good bet that he will welcome her help.
James Cheek, meanwhile, has expressed unabashed optimism about Ronald Reagan's support of his university ("We always got more from the Republicans than the Democrats. That is a factual statement," he says).
Stewart and Cheek are as different in their manner of expression as dawn and dusk. Yet, could this be the beginning of an element from the streets and the educational elite, however fledgling, coming forward eventually to provide more fuel for the black conservative movement? And if so, what does it mean to the streets of Washington, and to the hallowed halls of Howard University, and even beyond?
Imogene Stewart says: "One would not look at me as a conservative because of my social activism from way back. But the poverty programs in the '60s -- the administrators got that money. If that failed, let's try a different approach. We [blacks] have got to get our own house in order and then worry about white folks. I want to give folks incentive to work. When I came to this town I washed dishes. But I never seen a bunch who don't like to work as right here. I think there are some people like me from the inner city who think just like I think."
James Cheek says: "Ronald Reagan made one of the strongest statements in defense of black colleges. It couldn't have been any stronger if I had written it myself. I don't think it was practically motivated. I think it presented moral conviction. Mr. [Vice President] Bush gave a dinner at his home in Houston to introduce Howard University's fund-raising program to Houston. The chairman of our board hosted a fund-raising reception in January 1979 and Governor and Mrs. Reagan came and stayed throughout the reception and listened to my speech. There's nothing sinister about it all."
Cheek also seems ready if called, to step out from the shadows to informally advise the conservative Republican White House. If we are on the eve of a period of more visible political involvement of black educators, it ironically comes at a time when the survival of many private black colleges is threatened because they are considered outside the mainstream. Is Howard attempting to get more fully into the mainstream to guarantee its survival? Cheek's answer to this question is that Howard, with its 17 schools, 12 research institutes, 1,800 faculty and its own academic press, is in a different category from any other predominantly black university. With its $100 million federal input, Cheek says: "It's just as inappropriate to be concerned about Howard's survival as about Yale's." Yet Dr. Cheek's coziness with the Republicans is being questioned on his own campus. "Could it be possible that President Cheek, his cabinet, and the board of trustees are all conservatives?" asked a recent Hilltop editorial with an air of incredulity. The campus paper seemed upset at the thought of their president getting too tight with an administration that seems bent on doing battle with inflation using the poor as its cannon fodder.
If there is to be a new coming together of the streets and the educational suites under a conservative banner, it could be a miniature peaceful replay of a phenomenon of a generation past. The country saw a coming together of the people in the streets and in the educational suites in the 1960s. The leaders, however, were not the educational elite but the students, who with their sit-ins bypassed their deans and presidents in formenting the '60s revolution. The elite, sometimes begrudgingly, was forced to go along with the students at Greensboro, Kent State, Nashville, Howard. Parallel events erupted in the streets of Watts, Washington, Harlem and many other cities. But that combination was a liberal-spontaneous radical phenomenon. Some of the failures, real and perceived, have brought Cheek and Stewart to the places they now stand -- both with admittedly conservative values.
What will happen in the suites and the streets remains to be seen. But the 1980s certainly promise a striking contrast to the 1960s. While a majority of blacks in the '60s supported the civil rights movement, by contrast, a small minority supports the conservative Reagan government.
It's too early to tell where all this will lead, but one thing is for sure: When the streets and the suites converge, eventually there will be sparks. Whether there will be light or heat is the question.