When Philadelphia authorities bombed the house where members of the radical MOVE group were barricaded, Washingtonian Florence Tate noted with anguish that few of the traditional civil rights leaders expressed the outrage she and many other blacks felt.
She wondered why America's black leadership, which is usually so vocal on issues of injustice, had been "strangely silent on this officially authorized murder and arson."
After waiting several days for them to speak out, Tate was mad as hell and ready to do something. She called a few Washington professionals to her home off 16th Street in Northwest. They discussed the tragic incident and the alarming changes they see occurring in some black leaders. "Our leaders are not talking about it enough," someone said, to the general agreement of the group. "There are no longer any groups to respond to things like this and the ones that exist seem to have too collegial a relationship to speak out," said Tate.
By "collegial relationships," Tate might have been referring to the fact that Mayor W. Wilson Goode is popular, if not friendly, with many black leaders who may not want to embarrass Philadelphia's first black mayor.
Many of these leaders are particularly well known to Tate, who over the last 10 years has worked as a press secretary for both D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
But a week after the bombing, Tate was still in a state of shock over the reality that a black mayor and black police chief had dropped a bomb that killed seven adults and four children and destroyed a West Philadelphia neighborhood, leaving 60 black families homeless.
"I can't summon words to describe the way I feel about something that seems so incredible," she said.
Among those gathered in her home were a psychiatrist, a government bureaucrat, a businessman and a professor.
Pushing back the refreshments Tate had placed about in her comfortable living room, the group composed an open letter consisting of 15 sets of questions addressed to the Congressional Black Caucus, the Conference of Black Mayors, national civil rights, religious and social welfare organizations.
Three of these queries struck me as particularly provocative:
Why was the situation not addressed earlier, during the two years neighbors complained of the offensiveness of the MOVE household? Why allow an extremely undesirable and potentially dangerous situation to continue to the point of explosion?
What were the mechanics of making the decision to drop the bomb? Exactly where did the idea originate and how long had it been considered and planned? Had a bomb like this been tested for its power and range?
Does anyone now doubt that the cities run by black mayors are still effectively controlled by white power?
The group concluded its letter by imploring these leaders "to hold national hearings to reveal and discuss the full implications of the bombing of black people in the U.S."
While I can understand the loyalty and bonding among some black leaders that comes from race and oppression, I frankly agree with Tate and her guests. The leadership's outrage has not fit the dimension of the crime. Our leaders have to speak as quickly when one of their own is wrong as when blacks are wronged. Justice has to be just for all of us.
Many people have said that this is the first time a U.S. city has been bombed, but it actually is the second time. According to Significa, published in 1983 in Parade Magazine by Irving Wallace, David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace, the first such tragedy occurred in 1921 in Tulsa. The occasion was "one of the worst race riots in American history," the authors said, "when Tulsa, Okla., became the first U.S. city to be bombed from the air." More than 75 persons -- mostly blacks -- were killed.
Thinking of that long-ago incident, and now the recent police assault on West Philly, I could not help but consider another point to which Florence Tate and her friends only alluded.
As we celebrate Memorial Day and move toward the summer months, a lot of teen-agers who are unemployed will be on the hot pavements. One wonders, if their frustrations boil over, as in summers past, will bombing be the accepted answer?