The banquet Friday night was a salute to District students who had excelled during the past academic year, but the sponsors of the affair also deserved a lot of praise.
The group is called Concerned Black Men, which may strike some as racially exclusive, except that when you look at the problems they deal with, there is no doubt that black men are disproportionately affected.
Mayor Marion Barry, who was one of the speakers at the banquet, noted that there are 6,500 people in the city jails and at Lorton Reformatory, 98 percent of whom are black; 13,000 people on probation, 98 percent of whom are black; 2,500 on parole, 97 percent of whom are black and 9,000 awaiting trial, 94 percent of whom are black.
These are disparaging statistics, and tend to make some people write off black men as incorrigible.
But unlike many, the members of Concerned Black Men have a keen understanding of the saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." They have jumped into this cauldron of despair, with visits to Lorton, holding workshops and sessions on manhood and helping inmates establish a link with the outside world.
More important, the group does not wait until a man is trouble with the law before offering assistance. They go into schools, churches and community centers and onto playgrounds to talk with youngsters, guiding them in work and play and serving as valuable role models.
Providing role models is the key to Concerned Black Men, and its members are some of the outstanding men of Washington. They include lawyers, teachers, accountants, doctors and businessmen. And they are young enough, even street-smart enough, to relate to those who seem out of reach by traditional authority figures.
It is no secret that the men most likely to end up in prison come from single-parent homes, 91 percent of which are headed by women. It is the absence of a male authority figure in or around the home, according to a number of studies, that leads to a breakdown of discipline among young men. The result is that the lure of crime often becomes irresistible.
The same studies say, however, that the "man of the house" does not necessarily have to be a father, only a father figure. He could be a neighbor, a teacher or principal -- any concerned black man.
When such a figure is present, criminal activity decreases markedly as young men are able to make decisions based on the advice of those with more experience.
It is important that more black men join this struggle to save our youth. While the philosophy of the Concerned Black Men may appear trite, it is certainly true that nobody is going to save us but us.
To put their concern into action, Concerned Black men has "adopted" one elementary school in Southeast Washington, and has received more requests than it can handle to speak to young men about sexual responsibility.
The group, which started in 1982, has about 45 members. That is not nearly enough. There should be members of this group working with every school, in conjunction with every church men's group in the area.
The mayor laid out more of the problem in stark terms, noting that 52 percent of all teen-agers arrested and tested for drugs show signs that they use the brain-damaging chemical PCP.
This spells great danger for our community, even though the keynote speaker, Post columnist William Raspberry, cautioned the young guests not to let the numbers discourage them. "The prospects for young black people may be bleak statistically," he said. "But you -- as individuals -- can make it if you try."
Helping them try is the goal of Concerned Black Men, and by now it should be clear that the one-on-one approach is best way to deal with these problems. More people should be proud to affiliate with a group of individuals who have had such good fortune and are now showing that they also have the good sense to reach back and help those who have not.