A generation after civil rights, Leaders are less visible, more available

Reco Bembry and Steve Sneed, longtime childhood friends from Seattle, were raised on the legacy left by the civil-rights movement. They were young boys when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched and when they watched their parents and grandparents weep at the assassinations of King and John F. Kennedy.

Now adults, the two remained in Seattle and remain friends, each running an organization that helps young people in the community.

Call them the post-MLK generation - African Americans who grew up under King's portrait and in the long shadow of his death. They savored the hard-fought progress of the civil-rights movement and used that progress to carry the tenets of social responsibility forward.

To call them "black leaders" would be too simplistic. They are black, and they are regarded by those who know them as forces for change, though less visible ones than King or Malcolm X or any of the names that spring to mind from their childhood years.

To call them leaders at all is controversial. Many blacks say the day of the single clarion voice is past, and that as a community, blacks are too complex, too diverse to have a chosen few speak for them as a whole.

Some lament that as a loss of a lightning rod for black issues. But many see it as a sign of the very progress King's generation fought so hard to win.

"Do you hear people asking who is the white leader?" says Oscar Eason, president of the Seattle branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "Why is it that white society always seems to need to have a black leader?"

At the dawn of a new century, ask African Americans who live here - some 4 percent of the state's population; about 10 percent of the city's population - who best represents them.

Not too long ago, the answer for many would have been the Rev. Samuel McKinney, pastor-emeritus of Mount Zion Baptist Church, the largest predominantly black congregation in the city.

More recently, some might have been tempted to identify leaders by virtue of their position - former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, the first black to head the city, or King County Executive Ron Sims, who heads a government agency eclipsed in size only by the state of Washington.

But now the answers don't come as quickly and aren't as uniform.

Rather, they come as rich descriptions of leaders with a lower-case "l." Those descriptions are no longer restricted to prominent ministers or a few street activists but are drawn from every sector of life - business, politics, religion, the arts, sports, social service.

"Tomorrow's black leaders? I think they're probably less traditional than the politicians or those folks who may have been quoted in the past," says James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

"I think tomorrow's leaders are those who have the pulse of the community. Who are giving day in and day out. I appreciate all the focus on Dr. Martin Luther King, but he's been dead for over 30-something years."

In King's day, civil rights galvanized the black community in a common cry for equality, says Tony Orange, head of the state's Commission on African-American Affairs. With an overriding concern shared by all, it was simpler to rally behind the charismatics who best championed that cause.

These days, with basic equality protected by law, the issues have become both more diffuse and complex - and demand leadership at several levels.

"It's more of an it-takes-a-village sort of thing," Kelly says. "There's not, say, a McKinney or a Norm Rice or a Ron Sims - one person - who you go to to address all the ills."

Reco Bembry and Steve Sneed are typical of that new village.

Three decades ago, with King and Kennedy not long dead, they were passionate, mischievous go-getters; Garfield High kids with Afros who played congas; performers driven by a mentality more adolescent than arrogant:

They believed they could not fail.

They stayed local over the years, graduating from nearby colleges, becoming professional artists, even stronger friends, then husbands and fathers. But always they remained present in the community, committed to helping groom the next generation as they had been groomed by the generation before.

Bembry, 42, the current director of an organization called City Year, helped divert kids away from jail and onto late-night basketball courts. Sneed, 43, who oversees the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, revitalized black theater, and in doing so, created an organization helping youth spotlight their own talents.

`Making a difference' important

When he was a kid, Bembry says, it wasn't so much about what he wanted to be as much as where he didn't want to end up.

"Remember that Lou Rawls song, `Dead End Street?' I didn't want to go down one, not having succeeded at something. I had a great passion then about making a difference. That sense about `If I die tomorrow, did I make a difference today?' "

He grew up one of 11 children, raised by a mother and stepfather in West Seattle's High Point public housing project, then in Holly Park in South Seattle. One of his most cherished memories, which brings light to his eyes when he tells it, was the day the family moved into the first home of their own, a pink three-bedroom on the corner of 26th Avenue East and East Valley Street. It was next door to a store that sold penny candy. The neighborhood kids were allowed to buy up to 25 cents worth on credit.

There are other vivid childhood memories: The death of President Kennedy and then, five years later Martin Luther King, and then, two months after that, Bobby Kennedy. Bembry remembers how the news came on the TV each time, and his parents and neighbors all walked out of their homes and gathered on the sidewalk, crying.

"I didn't understand what it was all about," he said. "If that was greatness, and then you're gone? There was such a void afterwards."

Bembry and Sneed knew each other in middle school but it wasn't until high school that they became friends, forging a bond that made everyone think they were brothers. People still do.

Music, dancing was positive

Sneed grew up one of four children in the Central Area. He was a good student and played baseball, as did Bembry, on a team that wasn't very good.

When he was 15, he started playing drums. It became his outlet, a way to release tension and express himself at a particularly difficult time: His father died from bone cancer at age 56.

Back then, Garfield High, like school campuses in most places, rode the wave of black pride. If you were young and black, you wore your pants flaired, your collars wide, your hair pouffed. You carried cake cutters or rakes to keep the hair looking good. A lot of students drummed and did African dance.

"It was a time when we weren't being taught much about our culture in school, other than we had been slaves," says Darcell Hubbard, a friend of both Sneed and Bembry, who participated in African dance "This was something positive about our culture. The music, the dancing."

Sneed and other students formed a drum ensemble, rehearsing nightly in the basement of Grace United Methodist Church in the Central Area. Sneed's mother, Betty, had a job there, so he had the keys to the church and to his mother's Ford.

Bembry eventually joined the group, called the "Ogundas." They had no adult leaders. They were just a bunch of kids who wanted to perform, Sneed says. They happened to be very good.

With their congas and bongos, they piled into Sneed's blue station wagon, listening to KYAC, eating Hefty burgers from the Herfy's over by Rainier Beach, heading to gigs at other schools, community theater halls, prisons. Once, pretending to be the nephews of the guy who owned the Paramount Theatre, they secured a job as an opening act at the CTI Jazz Festival held there.

Sneed went on to study theater, music and advertising at the University of Washington. Bembry went to the Cornish Institute School of Performing Arts and studied music.

In their 20s, they formed a company called Sneco Productions - a combination of their names - and cobbled together some 13 low-budget musical variety shows, a cross between "Saturday Night Live" and "In Living Color" that featured young performers and brought the house down at community halls.

It taught them about writing grants and working with almost no money and working as a team. It prepared them for the work they do now.

`We still have issues'

Bembry is perhaps the more well-known of the two, largely as the result of the late-night recreation program he oversaw from 1989 to 1994. After working with the Madrona Youth Theater and the Central Area Youth Association, Bembry organized an activities program for some 2,000 at-risk youth. It was a response to the violence stalking that generation.

Locally, the program provoked a city bond proposal that built community centers. Late Night eventually became a model program duplicated in 43 cities nationwide. Bembry now directs the Seattle/King County chapter of a national service organization called City Year that pairs young adults with social-service projects.

But Sneed's work, even if it can't be measured in awards, has scores of admirers. He, too, worked at the Madrona Community Center for several years before stepping into the chief role at Langston Hughes in 1989, transforming a struggling institution into a revitalized theatrical showcase.

The city-funded center, housed in an old Jewish synagogue on East Yesler Way, now features a four-show season, a summer youth musical at the Paramount (drawing some 7,000 people each year) and an alternative education program for high-school students on the verge of dropping out or being kicked out.

Neither Sneed nor Bembry are comfortable being labeled "leaders" in the black community. There's a metaphor that both use when the subject comes up - a metaphor that speaks to changing times.

They compare the status of blacks before their generation to that of a leaky boat in danger of sinking. Civil rights was the force that plugged the major hole in the boat's hull, allowing it to stay afloat.

But there still are pinholes and weak seams that need mending, to keep the boat strong, to create the stability to build even stronger boats.

"Back then, the issue was just about having equality," Sneed says. "My mother grew up in Tulsa in the 1920s You had to live in a certain place. Go to a certain business. There was a black community according to geography. The cause was so clear.

"As a community we've progressed," Sneed continues. "But we still have issues - like our children. That's our priority. Look at education. It's a national issue. Maybe it's because people I know have children and they're always talking about their kids. But that seems to be what's really important now."

Sneed and his wife, Vida, have six children; Bembry and his wife, Helena, have one child and one grandchild. New leadership model

The old model, says Eason of the NAACP, was one visible, vocal leader per ethnic group. The new model is about people on the front lines doing good work and about teaching individuals to lead themselves.

"It's about `I make my own decisions,' " he says.

That model doesn't sound novel, or unique to the black community - which is exactly the point, according to local blacks.

The community is ribboning away from the traditional urban centers; there are black book clubs in the suburbs; there are African-American communities taking hold in cyberspace. Nationally, there is a rise in the number of black megachurches, which is linked to a rise in the black middle class and its craving for spirituality.

The answer to the philosophical question of who is today's black leader (or who are tomorrow's black leaders?), is sometimes no more complicated an answer than the response given by Steve Sneed's 10-year-old son, Jacob:

"A leader is someone you can talk to, who leads you in the right direction."

Michael Jordan is an icon, Jacob says. "My parents are leaders."

Bembry and Sneed aren't comfortable being labeled leaders. But ask them about their passion, and they'll tell about giving guidance to children, whether their own or someone else's.

The other day, asked to return to the Central Area to talk for awhile, they stand where East Cherry crosses Martin Luther King Jr. Way. A few passing motorists honk and wave. The longtime friends cross the street and a guy named Michael, waiting for the No. 3 bus downtown, starts talking about family values and knowing where your kids are and being a good father.

"I'm the guy who people think, `He's a gang-banger, he's a dope dealer.' Because the way I look or dress. I work every single day trying to raise my family," Michael says.

"Mmm hmm. I feel you," Bembry says.

Sneed steps in:

"You know we were talking about leadership?" he says. "This man right here, he's a leader."

Florangela Davila's phone message number is 206-464-2916. Her e-mail address is fdavila@seattletimes.com.

------------------------- The Front Porch Forum: The Leadership Project

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