Black Christian leader calls for new US civil rights drive
The head of the Christian organisation formed to push forward the Rev Dr Martin Luther Kingís civil rights movement in the southern states of the USA 40 years ago has called for a fresh push against endemic racism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Charles Steel, national President of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), based in Atlanta, Georgia, said this morning that the failure of the Bush administration to respond adequately to victims of the disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi amounted to wilful neglect.
Speaking to the BBC from Baton Rouge, where he is helping to coordinate SCLCís relief efforts, Steel declared: ìWe must bring attention to the problems, in terms of lack of support from the federal government. It all starts with the leadership, and itís nothing different from the ë60s, when we were involved with the civil rights movement. We had to bring attention to the fact that racism was alive and well ñ and it hasnít gone any place.î
There is widespread outrage in and beyond the USA that although the havoc wrought by the hurricane was widely predicted, the national guard was not mobilised, no effective federal contingency plans had been devised, and spending on emergency procedures had been cut.
Asked by the Radio 4 Sunday programme whether he thought the failure to tackle the Hurricane Katrina crisis was a matter of wilful neglect, Mr Steel responded: ìMost definitelyÖ you can look at the attention we got with 9/11. [Now] people from a whole city and region are being neglected.î
He continued: ìWe [in the USA] have divided ourselves as a society between the haves and the have-nots. Itís an assault on poor people. Thereís more to it than pulling people out of the flood and giving them food and shelter.î
Calling for a return to non-violent civil rights protests by poor black and white communities, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference chief said: ìWe need to go back to the streetÖ when we left the streets, we made a mistake. After the marching days and demonstrationsÖ people thought they had arrived. Sure, but we got off at the wrong station.î
Added Steel, echoing Dr Martin Luther King, ìyou cannot expect a system that enslaves you to save you.î
Responding to questions about how God could have allowed such a terrible disaster, characterised by fundamentalists as divine punishment, and pounced on by some evangelists, Mr Steel said: ìGod has given us everything we need, and we cannot cop out by putting the blame on God.î
Also speaking from the disaster zone, one of those caught up in the tragedy added: ìPresident Bush goes on TV and says ëone hundred per cent no lootingí ñ [but is he] going to come back and feed these people, shelter these people put clothes on them? This is just not right. Weíre not a Third World country. This is the most powerful country on earth.î
Other senior black leaders have also condemned the governmentís slow response to the disaster. Former presidential candidate the Rev Jesse Jackson has said that racism is partly to blame. ìThe reason one could argue that the rescue has been so slow is that some see us as foreigners,î he commented.
ìIf the victims were white, they'd be gone. They'd be sending in an army of helicopters, jets and boats,î said Yvette Brown, a black refugee from New Orleans.
SCLC president Steel last week took a one-way flight into Baton Rouge, LA, to visit hurricane refugees at the Centroplex Convention Centre in the downtown area and to further assess the needs of the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
He explained: ìWe have been working at galvanizing our chapters to join in the national effort to provide the basic human needs to these victims such as non-perishable foods, water, and clothing.î
The US wide ecumenical relief body Church World Service has also been playing a major role in coordinating aid efforts by faith communities, as have smaller bodies like Mennonite Disaster Service.
[Dollar contributions to the SCLC Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund may be sent to: SCLC National Headquarters, PO Box 89128, 591-A Edgewood Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30312, USA.]