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Redefining civil rights.

In the wake of decades of political struggle to secure strong civil rights laws, the civil rights community is redefining its agenda in Washington. Leaders say that in addition to lobbying for legal protections they plan to push Congress and the White House for an economic agenda for black America. Their mission will not be easy, however. With a huge budget deficit, federal dollars are hard to come by. Civil rights leaders will also have to capture the attention of a Congress that represents a white majority constituency. This constituency believes that the African-American struggle for justice was satisfied long ago.

The focus of the struggle, along with the political playing field, has changed, says ex-NAACP head Benjamin L. Hooks.

In the days when the most basic human rights were denied, the priorities of the black community were clear-cut. Today, they are less so. For example, when the Senate considered the nomination of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, the battle divided the African-American community.

A similar split has appeared regarding lower court nominees. Earlier this year, civil rights groups fought the nomination of Alabama Assistant Attorney General and head of the state's capital punishment division, Edward Earl Carnes Jr,, to the U.S. Circuit Court. Carnes, they argued, perpetuated racism in the criminal justice system. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination, however, And some senators cited division in the civil rights community. One respected civil rights lawyer had testified on Carnes' behalf. As BLACK ENTERPRISE went to press, the full Senate had not voted on the nomination.

Hooks argues civil rights organizations must fight on many fronts. But, he maintains their core function is working to ensure that voting and civil rights laws are upheld and enforced. "The disparity between white net worth and black net worth really reflects the fact that white folks have greater access to credit and capital," Hooks says.

Civil rights leaders want economic changes that will affect black America. However, Hooks says we must remember that "there will not be a special agenda for black people" from either Republicans or Democrats. Consequently, the civil rights community should focus on the needs of the poor, many of whom are African-American.

Although economic problems plague minorities, civil rights lobbyists will focus on other issues. Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, says the U.S. Supreme Court gutted several civil rights laws during the past 10 years and the battle has been to regain ground. "You have to make sure the administration or the Supreme Court is not taking away what you've worked for the last 30 years," he says,

In addition to housing, health care and community investments, the Conference also sees statehood for the District of Columbia as an economic priority. However, Neas says proponents will have a tough time securing any dollars from Congress or the president.

Not all leaders are pessimistic. The Rev. Charles R. Stith, founder of the Boston-based Organization for a New Equality (ONE), is upbeat. ONE was formed in 1985 to promote economic opportunity for minorities, women and the poor, and Stith has lobbied Congress to protect and expand laws requiring community reinvestment laws for banks. He says the reason is obvious: "Even something like enterprise zones will not work unless there's access to credit and capital on the private side."

Despite varied approaches, Stith says civil rights groups must forge a common vision. "You still have to maintain the battle, so we don't have to sit in the back of the bus. But we have to continue integrating the economy so we can afford to sit in the front of the plane," he says.
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Title Annotation:new agendas for African Americans
Author:Dumas, Kitty
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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