At a rare public gathering, a diverse group of African-American leaders yesterday pledged greater unity within their sometimes fractured ranks, including the announcement of a more formalized working relationship between the Congressional Black Caucus and the Nation of Islam.
In a declaration of unity that brought a standing ovation from the crowd that included factions that have been at odds in the past, caucus chairman Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) said, "No longer will we allow people to divide us."
The agreement between the caucus and the often controversial Nation of Islam means that the two groups will consult on legislative issues and develop common strategies, much like the caucus and the NAACP have done on major issues such as the Lani Guinier nomination and President Clinton's budget package, he said.
The occasion was a caucus-sponsored town hall meeting entitled "Race in America," in which Mfume, Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan, NAACP executive director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Jesse L. Jackson, a former presidential candidate, were brought together to discuss what all agreed was the sorry state of race relations and solutions to the problems facing African Americans.
In the process, some tensions in their ranks surfaced unexpectedly and further underscored what all had agreed was the need for greater unity.
But Mfume, in the spirit of unity, announced at the close of the program that, "We want the word to go forward today to friend and foe alike that the Congressional Black Caucus, after having entered into a sacred covenant with the NAACP to work for real and meaningful change, will enter into that same covenant with the Nation of Islam" and other organizations, such as fraternities, sororities and professional groups.
The leaders agreed that the problems of African Americans require concerted effort to overcome. Among the troubles cited by the leaders were generalized societal prejudice and black feelings of inferiority; housing and job discrimination; the lack of economic resources in black communities; and inner city violence and family dysfunction.
In a sign of increasing sensitivity to women's issues in their ranks, Waters was added to the program after the fact to prevent the event from being headed only by men. She provided some of the most applauded moments, such as when she said, "This panel represents the most progressive leadership in America today. . . . There is a concentrated, well-organized effort to keep our voices down on the subject of race."
The announcement of the formal Congressional Black Caucus-Nation of Islam alliance capped the event. The caucus and individual members have had informal relations with the Farrakhan group for years. But the Nation of Islam has not been deeply involved in national legislative issues; thus what positions it would take on various public policy issues is unknown.
Farrakhan has been controversial among whites because of his advocacy of racial separatism, and among Jews because he has made statements many deemed anti-semitic.
He has far broader acceptance among blacks. Many blacks admire the bow-tied, neat and disciplined members of the Nation of Islam, who preach black self-sufficiency and practice it.
The nation also has established a record of cleaning up communities overrun by drug dealers. And, as an orator, Farrakhan strikes deep chords among blacks because of his ability to put into words their frustration and anger at the state of race relations, such as yesterday when he said, "Black people have to take it upon ourselves to end racism. White folks will never end it. But we have the power in ourselves." Reference books place the number of Nation of Islam adherents at 10,000.
Asked if he expected to be criticized for his public embrace of the nation, Mfume said later that he meets with people of varying stripes all the time, such as conservatives on Capitol Hill. "I just don't know how you can bring about change if you don't work with people that you don't agree with as well as those that you do agree with."
"What we are trying to do is create a new sense of unity," Mfume said. "You cannot do that if you're not talking and working with people and that's the message that we're trying to send here today."
Yesterday's town hall meeting was the second of two sessions devoted to public discussion of the meaning of race in American society. The sessions have emerged as the centerpiece of the 23rd annual Congressional Black Caucus's Legislative Weekend, when public officials from around the country converge on Washington for a series of political forums and strategy sessions.
So eager were caucus participants for the open discussion of race that the Washington Convention Center assembly hall where the town hall meeting was held had to be expanded twice to accommodate a crowd that swelled to at least 2,000.
At one point in the program, Chavis publicly admitted he felt it was a mistake for Farrakhan to have been excluded from the 30th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, where some participants were angered that Farrakhan was not allowed to speak. But then Chavis added, "It was also a mistake for your publication to denounce brothers who did not prevent you from speaking. But I would like to discuss that with you in private."
Jackson, an elected lobbyist for District statehood who vied against Chavis for the NAACP position earlier this year, stayed out of the fray, even when a member of the audience asked how unity could be achieved when tensions exist in the leadership.
Later, Jackson described the unity being sought as an "operational unity, as distinguished from uniformity. . . . Uniformity suggests you walk in lock step. Operational unity means you agree in those areas when you can and you disagree when you must."