Deep in the second half of a symposium on the State of the Black Union: 2008," approximately six young white girls in red cheerleader outfits quietly filed into the upper seats of the center's auditorium. Chaperoned by a red-haired woman in a red sweater, the girls looked tired after a day of competitions in a neighboring hall. They joined the mostly black audience of about 3,500 people anticipating the arrival of Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton.
Clinton's apology" that day for her campaign's racially tinged" remarks captured national headlines, but it was a preceding panel of intellectuals, artists and activists who left C-Span's national audience and the New Orleans crowd with plenty to think about.
'We come to New Orleans to refocus the nation's attention on Katrina and the continued effort of this city to restore and rebuild homes, businesses and communities," Tavis Smiley, founder of the annual summit and a national public broadcasting icon, said in his introductory remarks. Smiley also is the author of the best-selling book Covenant with Black America, an African-American agenda for the presidential candidates and beyond."
Like most black summits" New Orleans has hosted over the years, the Black Union panelists reflected a diversity of African-American perspectives: from Princeton University professor Cornel West and Rev. Al Sharpton on the left to the conservative views of Republican activist Michael S. Steele and Dr. Robert Michael Franklin, president of Morehouse College, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Smiley moderated the talk-show style format with succinct questions on the theme: Reclaiming Our Democracy: Recasting Our Future."
Activist/comedian Dick Gregory said he was traveling overseas in 2006 when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin made his provocative Chocolate City speech. At first, Gregory said, I thought he was talking about Hershey, Penn.," adding that when he heard whites were outraged at Nagin's remark, he told someone else: Look, all my life they called this town Sin City' and nobody cared!"
The audience roared with laughter, and not for the last time.
Smiley praised Gregory's rapier-like wit: If you can get folks to laugh, you can get them to listen," the moderator said. Gregory later downplayed the capacity of celebrity to trigger social change, saying, Nobody was ever liberated by an entertainer."
Donna Brazile, a national Democratic political strategist and the first African American to manage a major presidential campaign (Gore/Lieberman 2000), reminded the audience that the storm-related destruction extended far beyond her native New Orleans. There was not just one hurricane [in 2005], there were two Katrina and Rita," Brazile said. She later added: This [election] is really about Katrina and Rita, and there's a lot of suffering still here."
A political commentator for CNN and a columnist for Roll Call magazine, Brazile said Louisiana's recovery from both storms should be a national priority for Republicans and Democrats alike in the fall elections. She spoke passionately about her ties to New Orleans and how the storms' destruction will impact her choice for president at the Democratic National Convention.
'When I vote as a super delegate, I'm going to think about what my family went through (in New Orleans)," she told the crowd. Rising floodwaters trapped members of her family on a rooftop as rescue helicopters repeatedly ignored their cries for help, she said. My little niece was 13. She was in that water," Brazile said, adding that government agencies did not rescue her family, It was two white men in a boat from Shreveport."
Born in now-closed Charity Hospital, Brazile attended New Orleans public schools and earned an undergraduate degree at LSU. She joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson's historic bid for the presidency in 1984 and the Clinton/Gore elections of 1992 and 1996.
The 2008 election is critical to the safety of south Louisiana and the nation, she said. This is not just about electing the first female or the first black, it's about when the levees fail, it's about lifting people up it's about getting people out of formaldehyde trailers."
In a later discussion on leadership, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who also became the first African American in the nation elected to a state GOP chairmanship, recalled how fellow African Americans once questioned his blackness." (Mayor Ray Nagin once suffered a similar public humiliation at the hands of black ministers early in his own administration.) Steele, a tall, dark-skinned man, recalls that he looked such critics in the eye. I would answer, What do you see?'"
Steele, who grew up poor in the gritty streets of Washington, D.C., recalled how his father beat his mother every day." He also remembered that he was a boy of 10 on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April 1968. His mother wept. When little Steele asked why she was crying, she replied, A friend of the family just died."
Despite the poverty of his youth, Steele attended Johns Hopkins University, receiving a bachelor's degree in international relations in 1981 and a law degree from Georgetown in 1991. He entered politics, becoming Maryland's first black lieutenant governor. I was sworn in on Martin Luther King Day," he told the crowd. Just a few hundred yards down the hill (from the Maryland State Capitol), my ancestors were sold into slavery."
As lieutenant governor, Steele chaired a governor's commission to redefine Maryland's goals and commitments to minority businesses. In 2001, he served on the National Commission on Federal Election Reform. Today, he chairs GOPAC, a Republican political action committee founded to train candidates for office.
'I am very proud to be a member of the Republican Party," said Steele, the lone advocate for the GOP. The new reality is both parties have failed us. But we have failed ourselves because we must hold people we've elected accountable. It's going to take all of us to do something about it not just to talk but also to act. I want to be held accountable."
Steele added that the strength of black America lies in a diversity of thought." More than a generation after civil rights activists desegregated restaurants, blacks today must learn how to operate businesses and governments, and take ownership of the diner." Instead of challenging the blackness" of conservative African-American leaders, we should be proud we're there," he said.
Gregory, a civil rights activist and comedian, concurred. He admonished blacks who questioned the blackness" of Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama. The Ku Klux Klan did not say Obama was too white you did!"
Noting the educational achievements of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a preeminent political scientist and expert in Russian history, Gregory also demanded that commentators stop addressing her by the more familiar Condi." She's a doctor!" Gregory said of the professor, an appointee of the Bush Administration.
And Dr. Franklin, the president of historically black Morehouse College for men, later urged aspiring leaders to dress the part. You want to be a leader?" he said. Pull your pants up and take your hat off. Be a man!"
Eddie Glaude, an author and associate professor of religion at Princeton University, suggested that blacks reconsider their goals for 2008, alluding to the award-winning Eyes on the Prize television series about the Civil Rights Movement.
'What is the prize?" Glaude asked. I can imagine some slaves thinking the prize was ending slavery, then finding themselves as poor sharecroppers in Louisiana as the North and South reconciled."
Smiley asked Sharpton how people could hold politicians accountable for action on social-justice issues.
Sharpton, who helped lead several demonstrations against the jailing of the so-called Jena Six" in Louisiana, said people need to vote. Protest and marches are not designed to solve a problem," he said. [Those tactics] are designed to expose a problem."
Prof. West, among other panelists, joined calls for holding all elected officials accountable. An avowed supporter of Obama and author of the best-selling book Race Matters, West said, When (Obama) wins, I will break-dance that morning. The next day, I will be his critic."
Brazile added: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."
In a morning session, Mayor Nagin reportedly told the conference that stopping homicide remains the top priority of his administration. Panelists who spoke in the afternoon urged African Americans to take more responsibility for stopping the cycle of violence and incarceration that decimates black communities nationwide.
Referring to black educator Carter Woodson's classic book, The Mis-education of the American Negro, Steele said the challenge remains generations later: When do we get angry enough to stop the miseducation of our children?"
Smiley pursued the question with Na'im Akbar, professor of psychology at Florida State University, who is credited with developing an Afrocentric approach to modern psychology.
African Americans need to realize the strength of their own resilience, Akbar said. Most of all, let's hold ourselves accountable. Let's pick up our community and clean our communities ourselves. Black-on-black homicide and self-destruction is something we have to take responsibility for."
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson, a national co-chair for the Hillary Clinton campaign, fought her own failing voice as she urged the audience to support House resolution 4545, which calls for equal punishment for users of crack cocaine. Presently, far more black than white users are in jail for illegal drug charges. I need you all to fight on that bill," Jackson said.
Moderator Smiley drew chuckles as he intervened with a new topic, telling Jackson: I want to protect your voice and get to your girlfriend (Clinton)." Smiley then turned to panelist Stephanie L. Woodard, a senior political science major at historically black Dillard University, a nominee for a Rhodes scholarship, and a founding member of CIPFEM, a nonprofit organization aimed at empowering young women in the African nation of Senegal.
'What do you see happening on your college campus?" Smiley asked.
'We are engaged in this movement consciously," Woodard replied confidently. Dillard students are staying informed about events in war-torn Iraq as well as domestic problems facing the criminal justice system, health care and the housing market, she said. Students are concerned about social justice issues and their own pocketbooks, she continued. We want to enter into a United States that is based on equality and democracy. We're worrying about graduation with an average of $20,000 in debt."
'More than that!" someone in the audience yelled.
Acknowledging widespread student support for Obama nationwide, Smiley then asked: What happens if Obama doesn't get the nomination? How do you keep from feeling crushed?"
'We keep from being crushed by staying engaged," Woodward replied. We unite with the wisdom we see on this panel." She closed her remarks with an inspirational biblical quotation and received a standing ovation.
By design, Smiley said, the panel discussion closed with remarks by Heareast J. Harrison, an artist, educator and Ninth Ward resident. Harrison said she is still renovating her home, which was destroyed twice by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and by Katrina's floodwaters in 2005.
She said she has been defrauded by contractors three different times and still lives in a FEMA trailer contaminated with formaldehyde. There are still so many people bent on taking money and not producing," she told the panel. I have been to hell and back, but I'm still standing."
Returning to New Orleans after the storm, she started a quilting program for children, teaching them cultural traditions and encouraging literacy. A quilt that she and the children made after Katrina now hangs in the Louisiana State Museum. It's important to me to be a role model to the children and to see a better New Orleans," Harrison said.