MAXWELL:  A national family reunion

7/20/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As a tall, slender African-American woman sat at a table in front of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center reading the Pittsburgh Courier, a local black newspaper, another woman, dressed in traditional African garb, approached and called out: “Verlette. Girl, is that you?”

“Paula?” the woman reading the newspaper screamed.

They embraced, swaying from side to side. They rubbed each other and cried. Their eyes closed, they held each other in this manner for more than three minutes.

Observing these friends reunite, I realized that, perhaps unlike any national gathering of any other group, the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a cultural phenomenon in every sense of the term. And this, the organization’s 88th meeting, was no exception, even though the group faces many serious problems.

While journalists understandably were seeking the big political or social story, right in plain view were millions of living vignettes that define the nation’s most remarkable homecoming.

Take the family _ a mother, father, three teenagers _ that parked at the Doubletree Hotel and unloaded 10 pieces of luggage from a GMC Safari sporting Mississippi license plates. The mother carried in both hands potted African violets from home. One son lugged a giant boom box and a plastic bag filled with cassettes; the other bounced a basketball and pretended to make jump shots. The daughter carried a framed poster of hit singer Babyface.

The father, wearing a Million Man March T-shirt, waved and walked over to other men holding placards that read: “We Demand Justice for Jonny Gammage.” Above the words on each sign was a big photo of Gammage, the Syracuse businessman who died in the custody of white police officers in Pittsburgh on Oct. 12, 1995.

This family, like most others, had come to stay for a week, to make the hotel their home, to bond with others like themselves.

Controversial boxing promoter Don King, who received one of the NAACP’s highest awards before a crowd of more than 4,000, aptly described the familial sense of the gathering: “I look out into this audience and see people who look just like me. That makes me feel good all over.” For better or for worse, the crowd roared.

Above all, conventioneers came to get a transfusion of a culturally shared experience they cannot find anywhere else.

Outsiders often wonder why blacks tend to act in groups or tenaciously support people who and causes that seem to be against their best interest. Why? Because at the center of the black experience, which is framed by the annual convention, is the irrepressible memory of slavery and generations of tragedy and injustice that have followed.

In effect, the convention is testimony to the creativity and resilience of blacks in the United States. Nearly everything at the convention manifests the black experience or intensifies it in some way.

Prayer, for example, opened and closed each plenary session. These were not simple prayers routinely offered, but heart-felt invocations to a God who promises that “the meek shall inherit the earth,” as one minister said during the benediction.

And gospel songs, themselves the handiwork of toil, fear and courage, echoed each night throughout the convention center. Several groups, including the Harlem Boys Choir, had practiced all year for a chance to inspire their adopted family, to strike chords from the past while offering visions of the future.

The Rev. Julius C. Hope, national director of religious affairs for the NAACP, recognized the relationship between gospel music and the conferees and helped to organize the Gospel Extravaganza Saturday night. “Throughout history, this is where we come from,” he said. “It’s important to invoke the spirit of God to guide and lead us in the convention. And so we brought in the Gospel Extravaganza, where we come and unashamedly let the world know that we haven’t forgotten where we come from and who made it all possible.”

Conventioneers also shared their unique experience in workshops centered on coping with, correcting or overcoming institutionalized racism in various areas of American life. Topics of the sessions included police brutality, the resegregation of public schools, anti-affirmative action measures and breaking through the glass ceiling.

Few if any black people here in Steel Town for the meeting could deny having been the victim of institutionalized bigotry, a shared experience that breeds a special kinship.

But nothing else captured the spirit of the convention more than the maternal presence of Myrlie Evers-Williams, the board chairwoman. In her personal tragedy _ the slaying of her husband, Medgar Evers, field director of the Mississippi NAACP, by a white racist _ the conventioneers saw their own plight.

Whenever she appeared, people instinctively wanted to stand. They wanted to show respect. And whenever Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., joined Evers-Williams, some people did stand. These widows, bitter-sweet symbols of the black condition, never went far from each other the second day of the meeting.

And when they locked arm-in-arm and gave a tearful tribute to the late Betty Shabazz, who died from wounds suffered in a fire set by her 12-year-old grandson, a hush fell over the hall of nearly 5,000. After they introduced two of Shabazz’ daughters, Gamilah and Ilyasha, many people cried openly.

This was a national family reunion _ a spiritual and cultural happening that everyone in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center will long remember.

Even the evil specter of the white-robed American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan outside the center on Thursday, the last day of the meeting, during President Clinton’s address could not spoil the depth of the experience the conventioneers had shared.


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