Picture this scene from the recent Congressional Black Caucus dinner: Two elderly black women, who happen to be veteran journalists, are told by security guards to either leave their tables, because they do not have tickets, or be hauled off to jail.
This is what happened to Ethel Payne and Alfreda L. Madison, and it makes my stomach turn to think that two women who have done so much to promote the Black Caucus, who have paid so many dues in their struggle to rise to the top of their profession, could be insulted in this way.
The women were attending a $300-a-plate dinner featuring Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children's Defense Fund. But tell me this: How is someone supposed to take talk seriously about "saving the children" when at the same time we see how people are mistreated once they become senior citizens?
Now, it is my view that this callousness is indicative of a deterioration of the Black Caucus. It is what happens when the lifeblood of black organizations is the money from corporate America, money that such organizations often beg for to eat their dinners, to hold their receptions and even to party. It is a classic case of black people losing control, and their purpose, because money has become more important than the people that are supposed to be served.
Madison objects to my going so far. In fact, she asked me not to write about what happened because she did not want the Black Caucus to look bad.
Besides, she complains, The Washington Post did not report that the White House always places her on the last row and to the side at presidential news conferences and that she has never been allowed to interview President Reagan.
She does not want to make the Black Caucus look bad, she says. What a trouper, I say.
But I just can't conceal my feelings.
Neither could George Wilson, a black reporter and commentator for the Sheridan Broadcasting Co., who said during an interview, "It is outrageous that this would happen to people who have helped make it possible for me to be what I am. These are the trailblazers of our profession. What happened to them is totally unacceptable. The Black Caucus has a lot of rethinking to do."
The story broke Saturday in the Washington Afro-American. Staff writer Jonetta Rose Barras reported that Payne and Madison, both in their sixties and representing the black Media Services organization, arrived at the hotel without tickets to the dinner after being promised that tickets would be available.
After waiting nearly an hour for the tickets, the two women decided to go take a seat in the dining room. Not long after, two security guards told them to "get up and go in the back" or else "be locked up." Payne, who walks with a cane, told Barras, "I picked up my cane and made my way to the lobby." Madison refused to leave at first, but after more threats she decided to join Payne.
Madison wrote a letter to caucus leaders. "There are two times in my life that I have been threatened with jail," she said. "The first was in 1950 when a white bus driver asked a highway patrolman to take me off the bus because I refused to move to the back. The other time was at the Black Caucus dinner . . . . "
Caucus officials have tried to smooth over this outrage by saying that the security guards must not have known that Payne and Madison were the women of substance that they are.
How gross, how beside the point, can they be?
If two elderly black women go to the caucus dinner and take a seat at a table, it shouldn't make a difference if they are maids, or retirees or invalids. They are the grandmothers of black people, and they should automatically be accorded respect.