MOSES LAKE – It should not have taken a hurricane to expose a nation of haves and have-nots, the leader of one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations said Saturday night.
But Katrina has done just that, said Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Now, let’s do something about poverty and racism in America, he said. “How many more New Orleans do we have?”
The Alabaman spoke to about 120 people gathered here for the Alaska, Oregon and Washington state Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Steele asked: Was it a conspiracy to never fix the New Orleans’ levees, knowing the area was prone to hurricanes and flooding? “And now that they have the black folks out, who do you think they are going to let back in?” he continued.
He said white business leaders in the devastated city have already considered gentrification. Black Americans, Steele said, have a responsibility to return and rebuild a city that includes everybody.
Black Americans, he said, will not just “go back to the plantation.”
Steele also said there was plenty of blame to go around for what his organization has called the inadequate response to Katrina. But he pointed out the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s shortcomings particularly.
“FEMA is already looking to areas other than where the disaster started,” Steele said. “They call it free money, and they are giving it to their friends.”
The crowd needed no prompting to shout out, “Halliburton,” the international construction company once headed by Vice President Cheney and currently involved in Iraq reconstruction.
Steele, born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was the first black person elected to the Tuscaloosa City Council and the Alabama state Senate. He succeeded Martin Luther King III as Southern Christian Leadership Conference president in 2004.
Founded in 1957 by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference traces its origin to the Montgomery bus boycott, which began Dec. 5, 1955, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man.
Today, the organization promotes programs to end discrimination and increase voter registration and political education to improve the quality of life for all people.
Looking out on the diverse crowd gathered Saturday at the Moses Lake Convention Center, Steele said whites and blacks working together is what brought black Americans out of slavery, and it will also end poverty in America.
“The worst thing you can do is allow this by being silent,” Steele said. “We could not have made it without fair-minded, thinking white folks. You are here tonight, black and white, because you care.”
Steele will return to Washington state Nov. 5, when he will address the annual Freedom Fund Banquet of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said V. Ann Smith, chapter president.
The NAACP has raised more than $500,000 to aid Hurricane Katrina victims in four Gulf Coast states.
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