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Kevin Powell

Tough Words at King Breakfast

The Baltimore Sun
January 11, 2010

Kevin Powell delivered a sober and critical assessment Sunday of racism and black culture to a predominantly African American crowd in Baltimore County.

The writer, activist and New York City political candidate acknowledged the symbolic power of seeing Barack and Michelle Obama aboard Air Force One and in the White House.

But, Powell said, racism remains a problem in America, along with class differences that divide the African-American community.

"We need to stop saying we live in a post-racial America, because we do not," Powell said. "Things have gotten progressively worse in black America, in spite of all the real and symbolic victories." He referred to crime, violence and economic disparities within the black community.

Powell had been invited to speak to more than 1,000 people at Martin's West who were attending the annual Martin Luther King Jr. memorial breakfast, which is the main fundraiser for the Alpha Foundation of Howard County. In his comments yesterday, Powell, who wrote "The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life," talked about a culture of "pervasive violence" and "self-hating messages," particularly in the media, involving African-Americans.

"There's a huge class divide in black America," Powell continued. "I'm sure Dr. King would not appreciate the level of classism we see in black communities."

Powell was particularly critical of violence perpetrated by black men against women. "It's become so normalized, we're numb to it," he said.

The foundation is the fundraising arm of the local chapter of the national Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate African-American fraternity, of which King was a member. The holiday marking the birth of King, who preached nonviolence and led the civil rights movement in the United States until his assassination in 1968, will be commemorated Jan. 18.

"To do the work of Dr. King is a very hard road, and the brothers of Alpha lead the way," said Brian Wallace, president of the Howard County chapter.

Its first breakfast was held in 1976, with little more than 100 people in attendance. It has since grown every year, organizers said.

The foundation has supported the creation of the Alpha Achievers program in several Howard County high schools and provides about $10,000 in annual scholarships to students going on to college.

The program is a kind of brotherhood for male students of color, to encourage them in schooling and community service, according to Vincent James, an adviser for the Alpha Achievers at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia.

The first chapter of Alpha Achievers started at Oakland Mills in 1997, James said, and now has 88 members. Each member is required to maintain at least a 3.0 grade-point average and complete 21 hours of community service each year, he said.

"What it has allowed them to do is have an identity," said James. "For a lot of our boys, their GPAs were falling. This group gives them a sense of freedom and camaraderie, and the feeling that it's OK to be smart."

Powell hailed the work of the Alpha Foundation and called for a "radical revolution of values." Greater financial literacy, and a renewed focus on spiritual, physical and mental health are important for African-Americans, he said. He has run for a congressional seat in the past in his district in Brooklyn, N.Y., and plans to run again in the future.

"We know what the problems are," Powell said. "We need people who are doers."

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