Georgia Democrat Cynthia McKinney, a member of the international relations committee and also a member of the Black Caucus, is similarly evasive. In Cambridge earlier this month to deliver the keynote address for the Massachusetts Peace Action awards ceremony, McKinney repeatedly declined to respond to inquiries about slavery in Sudan.
Considering the force with which African-American leaders challenged apartheid in South Africa a decade ago, the Black Caucus’s response to slavery in Sudan is at best curious. But critics suggest that slavery in Sudan isn’t as black-and-white an issue as apartheid in South Africa was.
Religion has made this a politically thorny subject, observers contend. African-American leaders, some say, fear that they will alienate and infuriate their Muslim constituency in the US (read: the Nation of Islam, which had dismissed the allegations of slavery as “propaganda”) if they condemn slavery by Sudanese Muslims.
“I think the fear of polarizing the black community is keeping them from responding to cries for help,” says the Reverend Steven Snyder, president of Christian Solidarity International, the human-rights group that brought Gassis to Washington as part of an international delegation.
But Snyder rejects that reasoning. On the contrary, he says, “I think this would tend to galvanize the black community. And the Black Caucus would provide an extreme amount of leverage in helping the southern Sudanese people if [the Caucus] were to become vocal on this issue.”
Black leaders evasive
It’s that sort of leverage that Representative Frank Wolf, a white Republican from Virginia, has not been able to apply alone. For the last few years, Wolf has been the only member of Congress who has outspokenly condemned slavery and other human-rights violations in Sudan.
And as he has railed against slavery and tried to drum up interest in the US, he has discovered that the Black Caucus is not along among African-American leaders in evading the issue.
In 1993, for instance, Wolf wrote to then-NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis Jr. He alerted Chavis to an alarming State Department cable he had recently received that detailed kidnapping and slavery in Sudan. At the bottom of the letter, Wolf penned a personal plea: “Will you help?”
Chavis did not reply. Nor did Randall Robinson, executive director of the influential group TransAfrica, to whom Wolf sent a similar letter.
Charles Jacobs, research director for the Washington-based American Anti-Slavery Group, has met the same response from other black leaders, most notably, he says, Jesse Jackson. “After I sent him a package of material documenting Sudan’s slavery, I called Jesse Jackson’s office and his spokesman let slip, after much exacerbating debate, that Jackson wouldn’t touch the issue because it seems to be anti-Arab,” Jacobs says. (Jackson’s office declined a request from the Phoenix for comment on the slavery issue.)
“We’re at least in shock,” says Jacobs of the dispassion black leaders in the US have shown. “You could say for some time that they didn’t know. But now they know. Our office has sent to every member of the Caucus documents, letters, and photos. Zero response. I have personally spoken to three black congressmen. Their response was, ‘Good work, son. Keep in touch.’”
Nevertheless, Jacobs is hopeful that the rising tide of evidence will ultimately convince African-American leaders to take up the cause.