ATLANTA Mayor Bill Campbell welcomed the audience for the State of the Black World Conference here last night, and the audience reciprocated, applauding his punch line that “while the rest of the country waves the flag of Americana, we understand we are not part of that.”
The four-day conference’s stated purpose is to create a dialogue on where the world’s blacks stand today, as their key issues of reparations, election reform and racial profiling have been eclipsed by America’s war on terrorism.
Minutes after Mr. Campbell aroused the audience, the Rev. Al Sharpton, tuning his skills for a potential 2004 presidential bid, cranked up the rhetoric even higher.
“We don’t owe America anything; America owes us,” he yelled to the 700 people at the Georgia International Convention Center.
The audience stood in honor of his emphatic statement, some waving the African symbolic colors red, green and black.
Last night’s keynote panel featured civil rights activists from around the country, as well as representatives from Britain and the Caribbean.
It was a star-studded event for the civil rights establishment with Mr. Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson seated next to each other, two men who appeared content to continue to avoid giving public face to their reported rivalry.
Moderator Bev Smith, who hosts a radio show out of Pittsburgh, asked the panel to define the state of the black world and the key issues. The latter was left to be determined later in the conference.
But the state of the black world is dire, said the panelists.
Mr. Jackson cautioned the crowd that new anti-terrorism laws, which give more leeway to law enforcement to tap phones and question potential suspects, are part of a movement to dethrone current black leadership.
“We are in danger,” Mr. Jackson told the audience, his glasses perched imperiously at the end of his nose. “The extreme right wing has seized the government. Tonight, [Attorney General John] Ashcroft and the CIA and the FBI and Homeland Security and the IRS can work together, so look out. Because without a definition of who is a terrorist, anyone can be … Martin Luther King could have been … Malcolm X, the Black Panthers.
“The right-wing media, the FBI, they are targeting our leadership,” Mr. Jackson said.
Mr. Jackson urged vigilance and stressed that elections next year were crucial to gaining political sway hinting that to give the Democrats control of Congress would unleash the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus.
“If we can win in 2002, we can empower 40 of our black leaders,” he said. “Maxine [Waters] becomes a No. 1 congressional leader … and we can put on trial the Ashcroft contingent.”
The conference has made a slow start, an organizer said early yesterday. In fact, she noted, only 400 people had preregistered, plunking down $35 to attend full days of meetings, seminars and planning sessions.
“We are guessing there will be a lot more people who just show up for this,” she said. “We are actually hoping.”
The event has been planned since January, sponsored by African American Institute for Research and Empowerment and the Black World Today, an online magazine.
Some have been no-shows. Mrs. Waters, who represents south-central Los Angeles, was scheduled to participate in last night’s panel, as was Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney of Georgia. Neither Democratic lawmaker appeared, citing duties in Washington.
But the words were strident, pointed and moved the gathered to vocal approval.
Sonia Sanchez said the black world today is no different that it was in the 1800s.
“You and I know we have been under assault for a long time,” said Miss Sanchez, an author and civil rights activist from Philadelphia. Referring to the terrorist attacks and the resultant hardships that many New York residents are experiencing, she said, “White people are now enduring the black experience.”