Black America's true leadership was in town last weekend, and hardly anybody noticed. That may have been a very good thing.
The heads of some 300 black organizations from around the nation were in Washington to select from a three-year-old action plan a few high priority issues that they could tackle collectively in the next two years.
One of the interesting features of the gathering was the fact that it was closed to the press. Possibly because charges have been leveled at some black leaders that they are publicity seekers or media-made leaders, they decided to hold their conferences without the press in attendance.
"This is to be a working session," Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.), president of the convening National Black Leadership Roundtable, said of the decision to exclude reporters. "It is more beneficial for us to get together without the temptation to play to the press or for the press to be there just to search for controversy."
Another important feature of the gathering was its all-inclusiveness. It was broader than the heads of a few civil rights organizations who too often seem to lead by press conference. On hand last weekend were the top leaders in 18 categories ranging from church, labor, social, fraternal, business and professional organizations, to elected officials, civil rights, rural and agricultural groups.
It was significant, too, that these organizations' varied constituencies number several million blacks across the country. Too often in the past, black leaders have seemed to define their roles as a self-enclosing circle that pays lip service but does not sufficiently represent the rank and file at the community level. So new leadership voices from communities not only can energize the struggle for justice, but also can help answer one of traditional leadership's most pressing challenges -- the need forcefully and forthrightly to address the problems of that estimated 50 percent of black Americans who are stuck at the bottom.
Although the press did not attend the working sessions, they did later attend a briefing at which was announced the six-point program those in attendance plan to implement. Its highlights: the development of a Black Venture Capital Bank, the launching of a Fair Employment Public Accommodations Program to ensure the employment of black personnel in hotels, restaurants and convention centers where their member organizations sponsor conventions, and the raising of $2 million for development and famine relief in Africa during a "Week of Famine Relief."
On one level, the plans they announced are just the tip of the iceburg compared to the scope of the problems black America now faces. Fauntroy was right when he said blacks are now hit by a "double whammy" -- disappearing jobs for the masses as a result of industry flight to cheaper labor markets abroad at the same time that budget cuts leave the poorest without safety nets.
These groups' specific goals grew out of a long document called "The Black Leadership Family Plan," which was drafted several years ago by the heads of about 150 national organizations.
In the intervening years, there have been several interim meetings about this plan, but part of the impetus for pushing for measurable goals right now is that black leadership has been under attack since blacks took such a licking in the November election. Since the criticism has been orchestrated by the Reagan administration, some observers see those as efforts to destabilize them in part because its chief players are so closely identified with the opposition party.
"Black people have been the scapegoats of the first half of the decade of the '80s in our country," said Fauntroy. "Black leaders have been targeted as the scapegoats of the remainder of the decade."
While it is wise to maintain a degree of skepticism until programs that are announced are truly implemented, this gathering was a step in the right direction. In coming together as they did, black leaders found a way to move from the low road of defensiveness and susceptibility to critics' barbs, to the higher ground of seizing the offensive on issues. We'll stay tuned to see how it develops.