Montgomery County's 50,000 black residents count among their number some of the most affluent blacks in the nation. But there currently are no blacks elected to any countywide political office, and the county leads the state in the number of violent acts directed against blacks and other minorities.
Last night about 50 black Montgomery County citizens from business, community groups, government and churches gathered at the Scotland Recreation Center in Potomac for an unusual "Leadership Assembly" to discuss ways to turn their numbers into economic and political clout.
Blacks are still a relatively small minority in the county, but the message from the speakers and the assembly's organizers was clear: Blacks banded together can wield economic power and can influence political decisions by uniting on such key questions as in which banks to invest and which suppliers to avoid.
"The numbers are here for leverage," said Montgomery District Court Judge DeLawrence Beard, the keynote speaker. "Coalition politics is what we have to concern ourselves with in Montgomery County, because we do not have the numbers to control the system."
Beard reminded the group of U.S. Rep. Harold Washington's victory in Chicago's Democratic mayoral primary.
"Why can't we do it here in Montgomery County?" he asked. "What we have to do is quite simple: seize political power. Power is never given; it is taken."
Last night's meeting was the second one the assembly has held in as many months, organized by Lavell Merritt, Montgomery County's minority purchasing officer. At the first meeting the assembly formed its own economic study committee to begin coordinating economic policy among the county's black-owned businesses.
That committee has been sending out questionnaires in order to prepare a master list of black businesses that will include such information as the banks these businesses use and the companies with whom they deal for insurance.
Using economic leverage to affect political decision-making is not unique, but it is an idea particularly well-suited to Montgomery County's black community, say the assembly's leaders.
"You have a very stable black middle class in Potomac and Montgomery County as a whole , and you have not heard much from them before," explained John Raye, a former television newscaster who now heads his own media consulting group. "We have achieved some degree of success, and we live in a county that is probably the best in the country for blacks . . . . Now we are moving to mobilize collectively."