The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a pillar of the civil rights movement, was calling the current minimum wage "a weapon of mass destruction."
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) was speaking against the war in Iraq and endorsing the hip-hop slogan "Vote or Die."
Famed dancer and actress Carmen de Lavallade was offering advice on how to get through life's lowest moments: "Relax. Breathe. Ask for guidance."
Yesterday's Intergenerational Summit on the State of Black America provided the kind of rich and varied afternoon that Jordyne Blaise, 18, dreamed of when she left Florida to attend college in the District.
"A dream come true" is how the Georgetown University student summed up the event, sponsored by the D.C.-based National Visionary Leadership, a nonprofit group co-founded by former television journalist Renee Poussaint and Camille Cosby, educator and wife of comedian Bill Cosby.
Bill Cosby has stirred controversy this year with critiques directed at black America: "These lower economic people are not holding up their end of the deal," he charged in May at a Brown v. Board of Education gala. He raged against young people who "can't speak English" and parents who buy their kids $500 sneakers.
But yesterday's forum was about as far removed from those images as one could imagine. Here were Blaise and dozens of other promising, engaged African American students, deep in the Library of Congress and sitting at the feet of living legends of black history.
The young people were asking these elders about politics, education, inspiration, the future of the civil rights movement. And the elders were drawing on lessons from their own lives in providing answers.
As Lowery told them: "It's important for young people to know where they came from. Because if you don't know, you won't know when somebody's taking you back there."
Organizers said learning from the past is a guiding principle behind the annual summit, which is taped and broadcast throughout the year. And the idea drives an ongoing high school oral-history project that got its start with an effort to record and preserve the stories of the elders of Dunbar High School in the District. Since then, young people across the nation have contributed more than 200 interviews to the online archive, most of which can be found at www.visionaryproject.com.
At the forum, students learned from eminent surgeon and oncologist LaSalle Leffall about how it was to grow up in rural Florida in the 1920s and '30s, and about how he knew he wanted to be a doctor at age 8 when he mended a bird's wing and later watched it fly away.
They learned from Hazel Johnson-Brown, the country's first female African American general, about how she kept on track despite naysayers.
"I'm on my way,'' she said. " You can come along, but you will not hold me back."
The youngest questioner, fifth-grader Laquita Williams of J.C. Nalle Elementary School in Washington, observed that some schools are still not equal to others, and asked: "How can children fight to make our school an equal to those across the city?"
Lowery told her that the black community needs to become more deeply involved in education and to demand better for its children. We are still sending the best teachers to where they are least needed, " Lowery said.
Blaise asked the elders whether a great figure such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was still essential to the civil rights movement.
"We have more leaders in the African American community now than there ever were before," Lowery said.
The battle lines have changed since the days of desegregating the buses, the leaders said. They said it falls to young people to take up the struggle for more subtle but equally essential things: equal pay, equal health, equal education.
Blaise pondered their answers as she headed out of the library
"There are still things to accomplish," she said, "and just little people going to college, people working -- those are your heroes."