Were the black Americans who voted 9 to 1 against President Reagan led into a "political Jonestown" by their leaders, as Clarence M. Pendleton, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, charges?
In vehemently denying that this was the case, some leaders have called Pendleton unfair and even stupid. Since he did not propose any solutions or alternatives beyond pleading, "No more Kool-Aid, Jesse Jackson , Vernon Jordan and Ben Hooks ," his motives have been labeled diversionary.
Some people have called his analogy disgusting and faulty because People's Temple leader Jim Jones was white and the followers who died in mass suicides at Jonestown in Guyana six years ago were predominantly black.
In the spirit of encouraging diversity, I want to shift the focus away from Pendleton's motivation and toward a tiny grain of truth implied in his attack: In the aftermath of Reagan's victory, blacks must reexamine themselves as a political force and reassess and possibly redefine their future in light of four more years of conservatism.
In thinking hard about the future, they won't be acting in isolation. The Democratic Party is assessing its next moves, pondering such extremes as whether the time has come to begin distancing itself from organized labor, blacks and other traditional constitutency groups. This issue, which rightly raises alarm, will climax early next year when the party's new Fairness Commission starts considering changes in the 1988 presidential nominating rules. Women are assessing the impact of the "gender gap," labor is pondering its role as the party rebuilds itself, and the Democratic Party is wrestling over the future role of Jesse L. Jackson.
In taking time to consider where they go from here, blacks should not only consider their isolation, but also realize that their situation has not been as grim -- regarding government's role in ensuring citizens' rights and addressing the effect of past discrimination -- since before World War II.
But it would be a mistake to let those new realities cause us to fall victim to the vicious quid pro quo mentality that overlooks Reagan's constitutional obligation to represent all the people, as Vice President Bush promised on election night.
The president's obligations aside, this effort to find new ideas won't proceed if the black community is unable to find merit in a wide spectrum of leadership.
Twenty or 30 years ago, black leadership included intellectual leadership. Psychologist Kenneth Clark, for example, was a key player in the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing public school segregation. The opportunity now exists to invite intellectuals back into the fold. The 21-member Congressional Black Caucus is a potentially powerful leadership group, as are thousands of black elected officials, key business people, corporate officials and academics.
Outsiders may find it hard to understand, but blacks have always been able to see merit in a wide variety of leaders. At the turn of the century, the black community found something to love in W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, even though the two men were frequently at odds. In the 1940s and '50s, blacks listened to conservative George Schuyler and progressive Paul Robeson. In the '60s, the followers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. coexisted with those of Malcolm X.
Already, the tactics for the future are emerging. One is a continuation of the coalition politics outlined by Jackson during his presidential campaign in an effort to "move from a racial battleground to economic common ground." Another tactic is confrontation politics, of which we've had a foreshadowing in the recent sit-in by three civil rights leaders at the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa.
Debate and internal discussion will continue, and the black community does not have to choose one voice over another. It has only to maintain control and anoint its own leaders, rather than let white leadership do it.
I would hope that one new idea to emerge would be the healing of the divisive partisan gap between black Democrats and black Republicans. Because blacks historically have countenanced a diversity of ideas, I expect them to stomach Pendleton as easily as others before him. In that spirit, to the degree that Pendleton's outburst can be used as a stimulus for thought rather than viewed only as hot rhetoric, it can be excused -- if not welcomed.