By ANJU KAUR, Capital News Service
BALTIMORE - There were no protests or demonstrations, puppets or Bush effigies. Without the top Republicans and with the release of a young black man accused in the beating of a white student, Thursday night's All-American Presidential Forum on African-American issues at Morgan State University in Baltimore was a well-mannered affair, inside and out.
Hundreds of people - black, white and every shade in between - filled the front of the modern auditorium and its balconies. The forum host, Tom Joyner, a syndicated radio show host, lightened the mood with a little humor about the no-show candidates—most of the top GOP contenders.
"And let me take a moment right here and now to say hello to those of you viewing from home. Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Senator John McCain. Governor Mitt Romney. And Senator Fred Thompson. Well, you know, I had to call them out."
Their absence had started a debate about the forum that drew criticism from President Bush, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other top Republicans. It gave the appearance that the party was not reaching out to blacks, they said.
The candidates attending the forum were: Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Arkansas Gov. Michael Huckabee, California Rep. Duncan Hunter, former diplomat Alan Keyes, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo.
Joyner then got serious and did a special "shout-out" to Mychal Bell and his family in Jena, La., the last of the "Jena 6" students who was released earlier in the day, after spending 10 months in jail "for what amounted to a high school brawl." Huge applause.
Joyner minced no words when he linked the Jena 6 to the "Little Rock 9," referring to the nine black students who were first to be integrated into the public school system after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
"Fifty years ago, in Little Rock, Arkansas, the glare of hatred and racism shone on what became "the Little Rock 9." Fifty years later, that ugly light shines just as bright in Jena, Louisiana. We've got a lot of work to do and it's going to take a special kind of unity, tolerance and understanding to get it done."
Two of those former students, Terrence Roberts and Jefferson Thomas, were sitting in the balcony with university president, Earl Richardson, and drew a loud standing ovation when they were introduced by the PBS forum moderator, Tavis Smiley.
Vernice Armour, the first black female combat pilot, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, also received a standing ovation when introduced by panelist, Juan Williams, a National Public Radio correspondent.
The African-American celebrities, including former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, drew all the standing ovations.
Of the candidates, Paul drew the loudest applauses. Even he was surprised when the polite accolades turned to loud cheers as he was introduced. And it didn't seem to matter what he said during the debate. Whether it was "repeal the whole war on drugs" or "we should come home from every place in the world (including Sudan)," the applause was always thunderous. His popularity surge on the Internet is also a topic of much speculation among analysts.
Keyes, the only black candidate, blamed most of the problems on the lack of God in government policy. His responses, which often sounded like sermons, received mixed reaction.
As everyone took pot-shots at the no-shows, Keyes was the only one who suggested that their reason to opt out was not racially motivated.
"I think it is a little unfair to assume that they didn't show up tonight because they were sending a message of some negative kind to the black community . . . they may or may not be afraid of all black people, but there seems to be at least one black person they're afraid of." He spoke of himself.
All candidates faced tough questions on race and unemployment, illegal immigration, equal judicial justice and disparities in health care.
The forum ended as it began 90 minutes earlier, a lively discussion of issues.
The audience walked out of the forum much like people walk out of a business convention. Outside it was cooler as a thunderstorm brewed, but there was no use waiting. All were soaked through their power suits to their black and white skins.