- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

BALTIMORE The Rev. Al Sharpton was livid, and his audience ate it up, showbiz style.
How dare anybody at this convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People think that they had earned their success? Mr. Sharpton fumed.
The 300 luncheon diners fanned themselves with their maroon table napkins while the summer sun in Baltimore baked the downtown Hyatt ballroom.
It was the year 2000, and the bad news was that … well, bad news was scarce.
Mr. Sharpton had left his chauffeured Lincoln Town Car and in a hand-tailored suit had strode into that room eager to deliver his message about black disadvantage and the prevalence of white racism despite Census figures showing that 75 percent of blacks are now living above the poverty level.
The recent prosperity in black communities comes at a time when more government programs and nonprofit foundations than ever before are in place to help black business entrepreneurs.
It was bad news, though, to the civil rights industry. "A disease has fallen over our country, and it's called 'Negro amnesia,'" Mr. Sharpton said, his hands trembling on the lectern, sweat running down his smooth, chubby-cheeked face. The speaker is a man who knows victims; this afternoon they are his audience.
"They are checking into suites at the Hyatt like they was invited here," Mr. Sharpton said. "Like your smartness got you in here. …"
Next to him, Kweisi Mfume, the president and chief executive of the NAACP, clapped louder than any others present. He had a $300,000-a-year salary at stake.
"Like your smartness got you here. …" Mr. Sharpton said.

Education, from the Bottom up
In fact "smartness" does come from the Bottom, a two-block area that abuts Morehouse College in Atlanta, a town that is on the map and has been for years for the welcome it has accorded black business.
Morehouse is located on 61 acres in a tattered section of southwest Atlanta. The sad, down-and-out neighborhood is a collection of trashed-out empty lots and shady street corners, an unlikely backdrop for the academic success at the all-male Morehouse, called the "Harvard of the South" by its alumni.
The school graduated Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Luther King, Spike Lee and Thurgood Marshall. The past is good. The present is brighter.
But just for a reality check, walk down the hill on Lee Street and you run into a desperate address where the never-wills often cross paths with the will-bes. The Bottom, as it is known locally, is marked by a shabby liquor store and, across from that, a Burger King.
The hip-hop sensibilities of the up-and-coming students never seem to rub off on the garbage-strewn streets. The kids are smart, talented and mostly streetwise. They do the brotherly nod to the denizens of the Bottom and move on back to their dorms, determined to work hard and become well-educated.
Albert Huff leans out his silver Lincoln Navigator with a paternal admonition for sophomore Clarence Sailor. "Study," Mr. Huff yells.
At 33, Mr. Huff is at the top of his game, having spent 12 years at Xerox Corp. in his native Detroit. He knows that the Bottom is not an issue for him or for any of the other graduates of Morehouse. Things are as good as ever, he says, even if Mr. Sharpton won't acknowledge it.

'A better world'
"It is now a better world for the black man," says Mr. Huff, who is associate director of alumni affairs at the 3,000-student college. He attributes his success to his own hard work at Morehouse, from which he graduated in 1989.
He thought prospects were brightening for blacks then but says that "the opportunities for African Americans are at another level now."
Kicking back in the cool interiors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium, he thinks it's about time.
Outside, Mr. Sailor looks around the campus, an exercise in modest learning. Window units provide air conditioning in classrooms and many high schools have better football facilities. The cafeteria is a bare-bones hangout, and the dorms could use some paint.
Later that evening, Mr. Sailor will go to a study session after attending an event with the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, in which he may or may not pledge. Again, as with Mr. Huff, the sky is the limit.
Mr. Sailor calls himself a product of the middle class. His mother is a Methodist minister, and his father has toiled 20 years in the factories of blue-collar Detroit.
"The glass ceiling has been broken," said Mr. Sailor, whose preppy Dockers and loafers would be fashionable at a Republican function. "We can now be CEOs; society has opened up."
Mr. Sailor is a well-received young man as he walks through the campus past Hope Hall and through Frank Quarles Court, a grassy, tree-lined open area around which sit several aging dormitories.
James Britton, a sophomore who, like Mr. Sailor, calls Detroit home, stops to chat, carting an armload of books and a black backpack.
An English major, Mr. Britton ponders the choices when asked where he might attend law school: "Ivy League maybe, or maybe even University of Michigan," he says.
Mr. Britton's sister is a Marine stationed at Parris Island. For Mr. Britton, it was either the military or college. "There was no doubt that I would go to college," he said, flashing a confident smile. He wants to be a civil rights lawyer.

Opening up opportunities
Graduation Day, May 20, 2001. The graduates walk down Westview Drive in front of the chapel to Campus Green, an open courtyard near Lee Street.
In the humid, early-morning Georgia drizzle, five hundred of them form a sea of faces framed by yellow-tasseled caps, bodies draped in black gowns. They didn't become the one in four "victims of society" that are a fixture in the evening network newscasts and on the front page of a certain newspaper.
Carl Prather, watching the parade from the front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel, knows well that his son, Carl Jr., has something his father didn't.
"When I graduated, opportunities were still new," said Mr. Prather, a Morgan State graduate who is now an analyst for a Maryland nonprofit. He understands the game well and is unafraid to state the truth: The playing field has become wider for minorities.
"Now, these kids know how to play the game. They know how to capture the opportunities," he says.
He's 45, with a receding Afro and an engaging smile. His son is destined for law school or maybe more, he says. "I've got to do everything in my power to keep from crying. I am so proud. I wasn't there 100 percent for him. But he wanted to do this with no help. He can do whatever he wants now."

'We have come a long way'
The campus is a jumble of good tidings, accomplishment and the end of a chapter in life. If the ambition of these students is not transferable, it is at least contagious.
Posing for photographs with proud parents, smiling on cue and pressing flesh with political vigor, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell stands under a tree. When asked about the progress of blacks in America, he answers "straight ahead."
"The barriers have fallen, but they aren't completely down," Mr. Campbell says. Will there ever be an ideal society free of racism, invective and hatred? According to Mr. Campbell, "We've just got to keep on trying. But we certainly have come a long way."
On the stage in the middle of the Campus Green, class valedictorian Ronald L. Newman expounds on his view of black America.

Uplifting the race
"I challenge our class to uplift the entire black community," Mr. Newman says. "You must always place black interests first. … It doesn't make others unimportant … but it does make them secondary."
Mr. Newman graduated summa cum laude with a degree in business administration. His 3.99 grade-point average affords him both popularity and a pedestal.
The parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents in the crowd murmur assent. His classmates, some of them of mixed race, sit notably silent.
It is a moment. It holds still. It makes some of the few white people present squirm. It makes white people who weren't there, the ones who embrace diversity, the people who man the booths at job fairs that are put together explicitly to hire blacks and other minorities, look a little behind the times.
Most of the graduates have already secured at least their immediate futures. Some are going to Wall Street to work for the summer. Others are taking some time off to travel. Still more, like Mr. Britton, are pondering where to continue their education. All are heavily courted in a world that eagerly anticipates scholastically accomplished young black men.
Kevin McKay is young and white, and he works in what is called "procurement" for Haden International Group, a Detroit-based environmental cleanup company. He helps find minority vendors when his company is ready to extend a contract and eagerly explains that the company goal is 10 percent "minority contracting."
"And if we can get more, that's even better," Mr. McKay says.

Corporate America reaches out
Mr. McKay works often at minority procurement conferences, where "diversity" is a buzzword, analogous to "enlightened."
Mr. McKay is sitting behind a flimsy, makeshift counter in a Cobo Hall meeting room in downtown Detroit. The cardboard display touts Haden's merits and lays out an array of pamphlets telling any prospective minority vendor that Haden is a company to consider.
"We're here to broaden our base," Mr. McKay says proudly, a man who is sure he is part of the solution.
Haden's "Minority Procurement Handbook" has a bold-color cover showing two black women, two black men and a Hispanic man. Some smile; others glare. In it, Haden boasts of its work with minorities, how it has collaborated with the many service organizations that exist solely to ensure that minority businesses have a level playing field and a wide network.
Corporate America pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to pitch a booth and mingle with minority businessmen and women. Bank One Corp., Ford Motor Co., Mitsubishi, Pepsico Inc., Coca-Cola Corp. all are present and accounted for here. White men nail down some heavy minority contracts. Patrons can grab a copy of BusinessNews USA, a magazine that says it is "America's monthly news resource about minority business enterprise and diversity."

Promoting diversity
That word, "diversity." Mitsubishi, in a half-page ad, states: "We believe that a quality supplier base can only be achieved through diversity, men and women, people of color and different cultures and backgrounds working together to achieve one goal a quality product."
Corporate allocation of minority representation is now part of the country's business culture. Anheuser Busch Inc. will award $5 million in scholarships to minorities during the next five years through its Urban Scholarship Program. Find any black business journal in any city, and you will see full-page ads of job fairs alongside advertisements for banks waiting to lend money to future black homeowners.
"Our goal: One million African American homeowners by 2005," reads one ad in a San Francisco newsletter, placed by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
A news headline reads: "UPS to assist African Americans in publishing online." Its article details a $125,000 donation from the United Parcel Service to the black National Newspaper Publishers Association to develop Web sites for its 200 papers.
The Minority Business Development Agency is a $28 million federal office under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The office funds numerous programs, institutes, foundations and councils.
After discussing these multiple programs aimed at pulling the race out of poverty, the 52-year-old Carolyn Hogan Byrd, head of her own private contract leasing firm in Atlanta, proclaims, "I don't think success knows race."
She pauses for a sip of mimosa as she sits in the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, an upscale mall in a neighborhood in northern Atlanta, not far from her home.
"There are some stumbling blocks, but it really hinges on the determination of the human being," Miss Byrd says.
She has lived the pursuit of success. Raised in Miami by her grandmother, Miss Byrd worked her way through Fisk University as a domestic servant, scrubbing floors. Could she have gotten where she is today regardless of her race?
A slow, easy nod … "Yes," she says.

Inside the American Dream
"The [civil rights] movement created opportunity when none existed," says George Williams, an investment banker in Houston. "My bet is that my admission to Harvard was part of a plan to open the admissions window."
Mr. Williams is pure Ivy League, from the sensible wire frames of his glasses to his khakis to his deliberate speech. A divorced father of one, he once agitated for black power.
He's obviously wealthy. He drives a Volvo station wagon to commute between his condominium downtown and the impressive estate he bought for his parents in north Houston.
It's a modest mansion, really, with its spiral staircase just past the wine cellar and easing its way into a five-bedroom second floor. A sauna is downstairs.
"The life I live today is truly the American dream," he says.
The way Mr. Williams sees it, he walked through a door that was already open, at a time when the civil rights movement broke down the segregationist barriers of the past.
He is now 52, and Mr. Williams is ready to say that today "there is little ailing black America."
"It is now just a matter of catching up," he says.
Mr. Williams at one time lived with five of his brothers in a single-bedroom house without air conditioning in Baton Rouge, La. Now he is at the top of his field.
"But as long as people look different from one another," he believes, "there will be issues of discrimination. In 100 years, when we're all the same race, there will be other reasons for exclusion like eye color."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide