Realizing King’s dream in business and politics

New laws and legal precedents are not enough to achieve the type of political and economic progress the civil rights movement sought to effect, according to organizers of a panel discussion promoting future black entrepreneurs and politicians.

Activists from across the country will converge in the nation’s capital Tuesday for a daylong conference discussing the continuing push for civil rights as part of an ongoing commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

A conference panel at the Washington Court Hotel in Northwest will discuss the need for effective leadership not only in the political arena but in the business community.

It’s a subject some analysts say has been underemphasized.

“It’s often not realized that much of the civil rights movement in the 20th century was a movement for economic liberty against economic restrictions,” said Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. “Many of the landmark decisions in the courts were on the basis of economic liberty.”

The panel, titled “Be Still and Listen: Models for Economic and Political Freedom,” will feature entrepreneur William A. Thurman and former Rochester, N.Y., Mayor William Johnson, who will speak to attendees about how to successfully create businesses or enter politics.

“We look at Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or Bill Gates and think, ‘That would never happen to me,’ ” said Van White, a civil rights lawyer who organized the conference panels. The panelists, he said, “are not making millions, but they are changing lives, hiring people and providing for their own children in ways that don’t get press coverage. But if more people understood they have that kind of power, perhaps we’d have less poverty in our cities.”

Mr. White, who is also an elected commissioner of schools in Rochester, N.Y., and the founder of the Center for the Study of Civil and Human Rights Laws, stressed that private enterprise is an excellent solution to critical problems plaguing many black communities, such as poverty, unemployment and lack of health care.

“Private enterprise creates jobs and can create health care and retirement packages to protect people as they grow older and face health challenges,” he said. “It can sometimes provide answers to these critical issues when government cannot. Government’s coffers are limited. Taxpayers can’t pay for it all.”

Mr. White said he still believes government must be “proactive,” but that private citizens need to understand their own power and potential.

“There’s a sense that you can grab a bull by the proverbial horns and make the American dream happen yourself,” he said.

Mr. Thurman, owner of Sunbelt Soft Drinks USA, was 9 years old when his father brought him to the 1963 march. In 1987, he started his soft drink manufacturing company as a research and development project and it spread from there.

“We need to talk about economic freedom because unless you are economically equipped and able to sustain yourself, it all becomes a moot point,” Mr. Thurman said.

Mr. Thurman said he will bring a model to show panel attendees how they can become entrepreneurs and apply his advice at both the local and national levels.

“I’m honored to be there,” he said. “There’s a lot of information that I want to share about the civil rights [movement] in correlation to the economic context.”

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