(en) white-and-black

Lyn and Shawn (linjin@tao.ca)
Tue, 20 May 1997 20:11:43 pst

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One of the crown jewels of the Christian Coalition's "Samaritan Project" came and went this past weekend in Baltimore, a so-called "Congress on Racial Justice and Reconciliation." For months, right-wing watchers have been anticipating the May 10 event with a certain sense of puzzlement. After all, there's not much, if anything, in the Christian Coalition's record that would credential them for an honest conversation about reconciliation with the African American community.

Turns out that an honest conversation wasn't anywhere in the plan. In fact, the Christian Coalition managed to spend most of the day Saturday without ever confronting its own record on issues of concern to the African American community.

That record includes a number of disturbing points:

* Pat Robertson opposed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, on the grounds that it was "one of the most frightening pieces of legislation that has been brought up."

* He opposed the 1991 civil rights bill, saying that, "We don't need another civil rights bill. We just don't need another one. The country is moving beautifully toward racial equality and opportunity."

* The Christian Coalition supported cuts in Head Start and Medicaid.

* The Christian Coalition gave its 1993 Friend of the Family Award to Jesse Helms, the leader of the campaign against a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

* Pat Robertson said during the height of Apartheid, "I've been to South Africa. I know we don't like Apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don't have it all that bad." u The Christian Coalition's 1997 legislative agenda calls for defunding the Legal Services Corporation and establishing a voucher program that would lead to the gutting of public education.

That's quite a bit to overcome in a single day, and it accounts, no doubt, for why the group's spokespeople were at pains to avoid talking about anything the Christian Coalition had ever done on these and related issues. Instead, what credentialing they did consisted largely of discussions of how much money they'd passed out or were planning to pass out to African American churches.

Here's how the "Congress" took shape. The meeting was in two parts, a day-long conference at Baltimore's downtown Hyatt Regency hotel, and an evening worship service at Israel Baptist Church.

The morning began with the Christian Coalition on the defensive -- the result of a pre-event press conference by People For the American Way that featured the mainstream leadership of Baltimore's African American church community protesting that the Christian Coalition had made no effort to reach out to them, and that the Christian Coalition's unwillingness to acknowledge and repent for its record of sustained hostility to the African American community was a barrier to true reconciliation.

To listen to the opening minutes of the Christian Coalition event, one might have thought that the group's speechwriter had been to the press conference and made some last minute edits. The Rev. Earl Jackson, who was presented as the director of the Samaritan Project, took to the podium and quickly launched into a series of denials and counterattacks. He said he wasn't there to talk about politics, he wasn't here with a Republican or Democratic agenda, he wasn't there with a conservative or liberal program. Rather, he said, "We have come here with the agenda of Almighty God." From there he touched on a number of hot-button issues for the community, and in so doing became the first of a long parade of speakers to satisfy themselves to do nothing more than identify with the audience's concerns, without ever offering a public policy approach to solving them.

That aside, the speech was an enormous hit with the crowd, and Reverend Jackson was sent off with a sustained standing ovation.

Speaking of the audience, a count of the room came up with 300 to 400 seats and one large camera platform in dead center of the room. As with the group's annual Road to Victory Conference (RTV), this was a serious "pipe and drape" affair. The backdrop for the speakers' platform was a television friendly curtain, with four separate "Samaritan Project" logos in view for the cameras -- two projected by slide onto the wall, one hung from the top of the curtain, one on the lectern. Nowhere in evidence was the Christian Coalition's name.

Again echoing the RTV staging, a sound system piped music into the hall before and during the event. At RTV the music was patriotic anthems; in Baltimore, the selections tended more toward gospel music. Security guards, complete with conspicuous earpieces, were in abundant evidence, posted at the door and trolling the ballroom.

Another thing was clear to the careful eye: the Christian Coalition didn't make much headway in getting people from Baltimore to turn out. More than half of the audience had been bused in from Wisconsin or North Carolina. And the North Carolina contingent left in midday, emptying the afternoon workshops.

Back to the event. Reverend Jackson was followed to the podium by Louisiana state representative Sharon Weston, a Democrat. She spoke of how hard work had overthrown poll taxes and Jim Crow laws -- seeming by implication to suggest that the Christian Coalition and/or its forerunners had somehow been supportive of that hard work. But she drove quickly to her point that government cannot be relied on to do all the work -- the church must step in, she said.

Nevertheless, she bemoaned the "absence of Christian leadership" in government. Asserting at one point that "our absence has given the enemy permission," and later that "Christians must be involved because we are the only ones with access to God." Still on a roll, she asserted that "the wicked [are] in power," and that "we need godly people in decision-making positions."

Two panels followed Representative Weston, one a group of personal testimonies from young adults who had come to God after struggles with drugs and crime, and the second a panel of clergy whose churches had been burned and who had then received money from the Christian Coalition's much publicized church rebuilding fund. (The group maintained Saturday that they had raised $850,000 on its way to $1 million -- a noble and admirable effort to be sure. That said, the National Council of Churches has raised close to $10 million on its way to $12 million, but hasn't gotten nearly the same attention the Christian Coalition has for the effort.)

Next up was the Reverend Melvin Tuggle, the head of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore. This is the smaller network of African American churches in Baltimore; the larger was represented at the People For the American Way press conference earlier in the day. The Reverend Tuggle said there were two key steps to reconciliation: remorse and restitution. He then applauded Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed's public "remorse." A measure of restitution came later that night when the Christian Coalition presented the church hosting the evening worship service a check for $5,000.

After a box lunch, the group settled in for Ralph Reed's speech. The Reverend Jackson introduced him by asserting that "God has his hand on him to do a great work in this nation." It was hard not to be reminded of the unfortunate bit of rhetoric that was uttered by the Reverend Lawrence Haygood at the January press conference announcing the Samaritan Project: "We in the black community were looking for a leader to come from the black community, but that leader didn't appear. He appeared in a white form in the image of Ralph Reed."

So up stepped Ralph Reed, who declared that "history [was] being made" at the event, which he called the "answer to the prayers I've been praying for years." Reed, too, felt obliged to mention his detractors, asserting that there are "some who don't want you and I [sic] to be here together." After asserting that the Christian Coalition was going to raise and pass on $850,000 to burned churches, he then asked himself rhetorically why the Christian Coalition would be concerned about attacks on a black church. His answer: because any such attack is an attack on the church of Christ. And there for the devoted Christian Coalition-watcher was the difference between Robertson and Reed. Just days before the Christian Coalition announced its intention to begin raising funds for burned churches, Robertson told his "700 Club" viewers, "I think it's not black/white, it's anti-religious. I think some of this is Satan worshippers. They found that girl who was a Satan worshipper, they think she may have been responsible for some. I know they've had some evidence of KKK activity, but I just don't think this is black/white. I think it's simply far deeper." Reed made much the same point, but somehow he manages not to be as offensive!

Then came the single most disingenuous moment of the day, as Reed ran through a series of issues of concern to African Americans on which the Christian Coalition had evidenced not a whit of interest until that very moment. Reed decried redlining practices; bemoaned inner cities that "resemble war zones," criticized a "criminal justice system where minority defendants face a stacked deck," condemned police practices of targeting African Americans for car-stops and other searches, and ripped the unequal application of sentencing guidelines for criminals. Again, no policy responses were to be found.

At one point, in a flourish he plainly hadn't sufficiently thought through, he said that "In the eyes of God, my friend, there is no Black or White, there is no Jew or Gentile... there is no Republican or Democrat, there is no conservative or liberal and there is only one color that matters and that's red, which is the color of the blood of our Lord and Savior."." Well, maybe not for the Jews.

Still playing to the house, he went on to observe that one of America's political parties takes African Americans for granted while the other ignores them. That was as close as he came to acknowledging what is so plainly the goal of the Samaritan Project: driving a wedge between African Americans and the Democratic party.

He then declared that he was in Baltimore "not to preach but to listen," a curious thing to say since he'd arrived at the hotel just minutes before his speech, and disappeared from the room after his remarks.

Then came what has now become a ritual declaration of repentance for Reed. He acknowledged that the white evangelical church had been on the wrong side of civil rights and slavery, and said he was in Baltimore to seek absolution from friends and from God. Once again, Reed managed to apologize gracefully for the sins of others without ever mentioning his own, or his boss's record.

Briefly, at the end of his speech, he touched on three of the Samaritan Project's legislative items: vouchers, empowerment zones and an end to "discrimination" against church-based anti-drug programs, which he declared to be the only effective anti-drug programs out there.

A quote from Dr. King, and one from Bobby Kennedy from the night of Dr. King's assassination, and he was gone, to modest applause. The Reverend Jackson then returned to the stage and worked the crowd into a standing ovation for Reed.

The printed program called for Phyllis Berry-Myers to follow. Berry Myers is best known as the assistant to Clarence Thomas who offered a stinging, personal attack on Anita Hill in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She went on to become a darling of the Right, but she never appeared -- either dropped for time or canceled for some other reason.

Alveda Celeste King, a niece to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did appear, however. She distanced herself from her family in a couple of ways, among them, declaring herself to be the first of the King family to be born again. She also decried the recent episode of "Ellen," predicting that a gay lead character in a sitcom would drive Christians into the streets.

Finally the group broke into workshops, none of which seemed to have much drawing power. None had more than 20 participants. A workshop on welfare had a number of women from Milwaukee in the audience, and they related stories of their own experiences on welfare. One complained that she had been unable to hold a job because of the lingering effects of her drug abuse, and that she worried that under Wisconsin's restrictive welfare law, she would lose benefits. Panelist Sharon Weston (the Louisiana state representative) told her that she was on the right track because she was obviously here with a church group. Next question.

A session on the "Religious Freedom Amendment," or Christian Nation Amendment as some are calling it, included Brian Lopina, the Washington lobbying chief for the Christian Coalition. Asked how churches could lobby for the bill and still keep their tax status, one panelist essentially replied that churches should lobby and damn the consequences.

A session on racial reconciliation offered no particular advice on how to accomplish reconciliation. That prompted one audience member to take the floor to complain that he'd traveled from Washington for the event and was disappointed that he'd gotten no real direction on what to do. At another point, one of the panelists at the session -- a Catholic priest -- said he disagreed with Ralph Reed's oft-stated assertion that the war on poverty had failed.

A fourth session on drugs, gangs and violence was held as well. It, too, was sparsely attended

The next event was a worship service at Israel Baptist Church, attended by some 400 people. Kay Cole James, former Family Research Council staffer turned faculty member of Robertson's Regent University spoke. The main event, however, was Pat Robertson. Following normal Christian Coalition practice, Robertson was kept out of the media spotlight during the day event. His remarks were mostly devoted to condemnations of bigotry woven throughout personal stories of his own experience with prejudice and a listing of African Americans he'd met or admired.

In the course of his remarks he told a story about taking a friend to a downtown Portsmouth, Virginia neighborhood and diverting a riot by leading a group of African Americans youth in a prayer -- he said that "when you're the only honky in an all-black neighborhood," you draw a crowd. The prayer was broken up by police dogs, one of whom he said lunged for him. "Believe me," he said, "if you've ever been charged by a police dog, I feel your pain. It's very unpleasant to feel that you are going to be put down by The Man, and that you don't have any chance to argue your case in front of him, that you're guilty before you're even tried."

He then launched into a series of short tales about his experiences with African Americans, apparently as a way to communicate to the crowd that he was no stranger to the community. He mentioned that Arthur Ashe, former Virginia governor Doug Wilder had invited him to an event in Richmond that he attended, at his own expense (he said that twice). Next was Ben Kinchlow, his "700 Club co-host" -- Robertson said "I love him like he's my own family." He observed that Colin Powell was the most popular choice for president, but that he, Robertson, thought he would not run. He said that Tiger Woods has "broken down the barriers and has become one of the most admired sports figures in America," and he noted that Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color barrier 50 years ago this year.

Then what should have been the payoff for this recitation became a difficult moment, as he struggled to remember the name of Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke: "And here you've got, I believe in Baltimore, last time I heard, you've got a black mayor. Is he still alive? Is he with us? I hadn't read the papers recently. All right, but anyhow, in major cities across America, people who are black and people who are white -- the racial barriers are coming down, the ceiling is coming down."

He also noted that Evander Holyfield, George Foreman and Archie Moore had been on his television program.

Soon after, he concluded his remarks, was prayed over by several of the ministers in attendance, and then left the church with the service in progress.


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