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Groups Part Ways on Path to Racial Harmony

May 31, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — To hear Al Burton tell it, the upcoming Long Beach Interracial Workshop was his own idea and its creation the act of a private citizen.

City Councilman Clarence Smith, on the other hand, says Burton's organizing efforts come under the auspices of an organization the councilman set up and now heads.

The two had an angry falling out recently over who should control the event. So instead of just one gathering to promote racial and ethnic harmony, Long Beach may soon be the site of two such conferences.

"It's an attempt to take over," said Burton. "(Smith) is attempting to burglarize (the people's) humanitarian efforts."

Countered Smith, who represents the city's largely black 6th District: "(Burton) is misleading the public. I can't allow him to be a rebel."

Legal Action Threatened

The conflict has even prompted Burton to threaten legal action barring Smith from interfering with the June 13 workshop and from using the same name for a conference the councilman is planning.

According to Burton, the idea for the gathering originated several months ago during a chance meeting with a Korean clergyman at a university seminar on AIDS and minorities. "Here I was talking to this Korean and I realized that I personally had no sympathy for (Asians)," said Burton, who is black. "I became ashamed of myself."

Upon further reflection, Burton said, he realized that hostility between blacks and Asians in the city is rampant, particularly among Southeast Asian merchants and the black residents who share their neighborhoods. "I see it all the time," he said. "Sometimes it gets violent."

Tension Among Groups

In addition, he said, tension exists between the city's Latinos and some of the new Southeast Asian immigrants.

So Burton--who makes his living as executive director of New Breed, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating obesity--put together a committee of representatives from all three minority groups, as well as from various local and state agencies. And after several meetings the group hammered out an agenda for the upcoming conference that included presentations by Mayor Ernie Kell and Long Beach Unified School District Supt. E. Tom Giugni, as well as a local black newspaper columnist, Latino community leader, Cambodian Buddhist monk, Catholic bishop, refugee resettlement worker and executive director of the city's chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

"Our goal is to identify the sources of irritation and develop some programs to eliminate them," Burton said.

The only problem was that during the period he was organizing the conference, he was also chairman of the community relations committee of the Central Area Assn., an organization founded and led by Smith.

Group's Purpose Questioned

Burton characterizes the association as a group designed to promote the councilman's personal political ambitions. Smith says it is a grass-roots community organization aimed at improving the lives of his constituents.

Whatever the case, part of the job of the association's human relations chairman is to network with other community, civic and business organizations to enhance human relations. Smith said Burton was performing that function by organizing the interracial conference. Burton said he was acting independently without the association's support.

The matter came to a head earlier this month when Smith ordered Burton to emblazon the association's name atop flyers being prepared to promote the workshop. Burton refused, saying it would be inappropriate for the event to be sponsored solely by a partisan political group.

So Smith sent letters to Burton's organizing committee members and all who had agreed to participate in the workshop. The letter announced that Burton was no longer in charge, rescheduled an upcoming meeting of the Interracial Workshop planning committee and postponed the workshop itself until July 11.

The result has been chaos.

Kell quietly canceled his appearance, citing scheduling conflicts. Giugni says he's not sure what he will do, adding that the whole situation "sounds confusing." And last week, two separate planning committees--each under one of the antagonists--met within an hour of each other to plan separate interracial workshops.

Separate Planning Groups

Burton's meeting--held at the city's Central Facilities Center near Martin Luther King Park--drew six people, including a representative of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation and the county's Commission on Human Relations. Smith's--held at a nearby church--drew 11 participants, including a representative from the school district and the director of United Cambodian Community Inc.

Both leaders vowed to hold their own workshops, though members of Smith's group said they would meet again this week to further "dialogue" on the matter and firm up a date.

"We should keep it (autonomous) the way it is," said Pearlie Ree Williams, who attended Burton's meeting.

Said the Rev. Norman Copeland, who attended Smith's: "Let's go back to the drawing boards."

Caught in the middle are the participants and planners, particularly Southeast Asians, who responded to Burton's initial call unaware that they were stepping into a political hotbox.

"We are very interested in the workshop and we want it to go on," said Jo Marcel, assistant director of the Catholic Charities' Refugee Resettlement Program, which sent representatives to both meetings. "But I would rather see it canceled than go on with this conflict, which is bad for the community."

Said the Rev. Chhean Kong, a Cambodian Buddhist monk who attended Smith's meeting: "This was (to create) understanding between East and West. Now, West and West do not understand each other."

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