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Turnout Sparse at Black Political Convention

September 30, 1996|MICHAEL A. FLETCHER | THE WASHINGTON POST

ST. LOUIS — After last year's Million Man March, organizers promised tangible programs that would erase any questions about the long-term impact of the huge and uplifting event.

But if the riddle of the march's legacy has an answer, organizers hope it was not provided at the black political convention that ended here Sunday.

Only a few hundred delegates--most of them veteran activists or members of the Nation of Islam--turned out for most of an event that march organizers had confidently predicted would attract tens of thousands from a broad cross-section of black America.

The convention was supposed to provide the first big step toward fulfilling Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's pledge to harness the energy unleashed by the march--one of the larger demonstrations in the history of Washington--into "a third political force" that works in the interest of black and "oppressed" people. Instead, the convention seemed to raise questions about whether the march's momentum has slipped away.

"What you see here is the truth slapping you in the face," said Kobi Little, a convention delegate, as he looked over the sparse crowd sprinkled on the floor of the huge Trans World Dome. "This is what happens if you don't organize."

Farrakhan and Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the lead organizers of both the march and the convention, envisioned the political convention as the most significant black political gathering since 1972, when many of the nation's top black elected officials and activists gathered in Gary, Ind.

But their convention was snubbed by virtually every prominent black political figure in the country, whose political plans apparently are already in place.

More damaging to the event than the absence of big-name elected officials was the shortage of actual delegates and observers, who, organizers had predicted, would give the gathering a grass-roots legitimacy that no major political candidate could ignore. But the crowds were small until Farrakhan's keynote address Saturday night before an audience swollen to about 5,000 by radio announcements and Nation of Islam members' distributing fliers on the street.

Farrakhan took to task elected officials for encouraging voter apathy by not being true to their duties.

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