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A Delicate Balance : Cawthorne Mixes Drama, Clout to Push Black Interests

November 22, 1987|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

On a recent afternoon, Herb L. Cawthorne, new president of the Urban League of San Diego, was uncharacteristically mellow.

Here was the man who came to town and landed in the vortex of controversy, the man who has become the spokesman for the black community's anger over the Market Street vote, the man who called for a mass march and a nationwide economic boycott of San Diego's tourism trade. And here he was, sitting calmly with his right foot propped up on an open desk drawer, holding a lighted cigarette in his left hand, talking about the virtues of waiting.

"What I read this morning was the I-Ching," Cawthorne said. "You know what that is? The book of Chinese wisdom.

"And I read about the still mountain. It's a very important piece because (it says that) in the midst of controversy, stay still. Think hard. Deliberate. Don't try to fix that which is not prepared to be fixed yet.

"You stay still and the solutions will come, as long as you don't try to force them."

In theory, it sure sounds good.

But in practice, those who know the 40-year-old Cawthorne say he is more like a rumbling volcano than the still mountain of Eastern philosophy.

Wide-Ranging Interests

They say he is an energetic and forceful man who is impatient with bureaucracy and a master at attracting and holding attention. His passions, they say, are diverse--public speaking, black history, political action, reading, philosophy, education.

And they say he is as comfortable making discreet contacts in the corporate board rooms as he is appearing before an audience of school children to portray Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas or Langston Hughes in one of his one-man shows.

"He's a very charismatic man with a lot of personality, and has had a lot of success by driving directly at a problem, tackling it head on and going to the people involved to solve it," said Peter Thompson, managing editor of The Oregonian newspaper and a board member of the Portland Urban League, where Cawthorne was last employed.

Don C. Frisbee, chairman and chief executive officer of PacificCorp, the largest company based in Portland, added: "Herb is an activist, a restless man who has to see things accomplished."

It was not unusual, then, that Cawthorne hit the ground running in San Diego soon after he started the Urban League job in early August. The Urban League promotes equal opportunity and equality for blacks and other minorities.

As the weeks were winding down on a vote of whether to replace the name Dr. Martin Luther King Way with its former name, Market Street, Cawthorne jumped into the fray, warning that a repudiation of the King memorial would strain race relations and sully San Diego's reputation nationwide.

But it wasn't until the hectic days after San Diegans voted to strip King's name from the downtown street that Cawthorne stepped fully into the spotlight with a dramatic style.

When reporters gathered at the Urban League's Southeast San Diego offices for a post-mortem the day after the vote, Cawthorne arranged to have some men roll a gray casket containing a King Way sign into the room. The people were mourning the loss of a symbol, he explained.

That motif carried over to a highly successful protest march organized by Cawthorne Nov. 8, when a crowd--estimated between 1,000 and 1,500 people--met downtown to walk dirge-like behind the casket. At Cawthorne's urging, many wore black.

Cawthorne used the familiar ground of the Catfish Club, where the weekly luncheon group of local black leaders meets, to call for a nationwide economic boycott of San Diego's convention trade in protest to the vote.

And when there were no immediate convention cancellations, Cawthorne returned to the club a week later and hinted that "several" groups were considering the action, but he declined to say which ones. He also attacked the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau for not releasing a list of convention groups that had signed up for gatherings starting in 1988.

On Friday, Cawthorne announced that the boycott was suspended after he negotiated with local corporate leaders to form a committee to raise money for a King monument.

"If I had my own individual choice in terms of my leadership of the Urban League right now, I would have never planned a boycott," Cawthorne said in a recent interview.

"But the people that I serve and that I work for, over the course of many hours of meetings, decided collectively that this was an appropriate response," he said. "And under the circumstances, I agree."

Making Friends in Business

Cawthorne has used the furor over Market Street to make inroads into San Diego's business establishment, and he's been been quick to size up the state of race relations in his new hometown.

The businessmen he's approached have been "interested, engaging, willing to listen to the conditions and the hopes of the Urban League . . . ."

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