Sunday, January 5, 2003

'Hanging yourself'

Breakfast boycott takes toll


In the vise of Cincinnati's boycott, sometimes it's the children who get hurt.

For the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati, a group that for 30 years has brought the arts to thousands of young people and adults in the Tristate, the day of dilemma came last week.

Should the consortion continue plans to hold the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Dreamkeepers Award Breakfast in downtown Cincinnati Jan. 20, or should it cancel it?

The breakfast is no rinky-dink event. Held at the Hyatt Regency Cincinnati, it kicks off a week of citywide celebrations honoring Dr. King. It also is the consortium's top fund-raising event.

The 900-person feast is one of the only events that brings together Cincinnati's richest and most powerful with its poorest and least influential. Blacks break bread with whites; children sup with elders, politicos press flesh with the politically indifferent.

Suits and African dress

For a few hours, Cincinnati acts as if its racial house were in order.

Everyone looks impressive in their business suits and African attire. People speak movingly about the great man who held up an ideal - racial unity - to an uneasy nation.

It all could have been canceled this year, had the consortium complied with a morally powerful request.

Martin Luther King III, son of the man whom the celebrations seek to honor, recently asked that the consortium cancel the breakfast or move it out of the boycott zone, saying it violates his father's dream.

Mr. King possesses a powerful voice of conscience, rooted in history, sustained by present inequities. When he speaks, those who care about justice listen.

The arts consortium listened, but it didn't yield.

Most of what the consortium does, it does for children, mostly African-American children. Its in-school, after-school, and night and weekend programs; its artists and fledgling arts groups; its plays, performances and pictures, almost all focus on minorities.

In this battle of the boycott, it's us against us - again. And like most matters dealing with race, there's no clearcut answer.

How can a Martin Luther King celebration, designed to remind people that there is work to be done on race, harm the cause of racial equality?

How can a function named for a man who made boycotts a heroic chapter in American history become a tool that flouts a boycott?

What would Martin do?

On the other hand, how can boycotters seek social and political advancement for blacks, while indirectly endangering one of blacks' key forums?

The breakfast is a question of survival for the Arts Consortium, says Sharon Hardin, its executive director.

The breakfast is supposed to raise $30,000, money already spent by an organization living bare to the bone.Without the breakfast, where would that money to come from?

There are strings attached to the rest. The city pays 65 percent of the consortium's bills. Private donors also may have concerns about the boycott, especially after some boycotters' anti-Semitic rants.

Ms. Hardin says that complying with the boycott is like "hanging yourself," an unfortunate but probably correct description.

It need not be that way.

During Dr. King's historic bus boycotts, organizers tried to soften the impact on blacks who complied. They arranged for rides to work and they financially supported families of those fired from jobs or jailed.

Are today's boycott organizers ready to soften the blow this time?

I can't blame the Arts Consortium. They are the ones who would have seen the disappointed faces of children, budding artists, deprived again.


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