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From perceived slight to reality: a new chance

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By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 28, 2001

When the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs holds its annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast Jan. 21, the theme of the day will feature three words: redemption, rededication, recommitment.

They speak to TOBA's goals: finding new ways to empower the black community through education, economics and politics.

You might think the theme could easily apply to the event's host: the Marriott Waterside.

The hotel, after all, was the site of August's infamous punch bowl incident.

Just what happened that night at a dinner for the predominantly black Progressive National Baptist Convention has never been established. A convention member apparently complained that a white server tainted a bowl of fruit punch, and an array of rumors quickly spread. The 800 attendees walked out of the hotel.

Now TOBA's going to the Waterside for a King breakfast. Intriguing.

While Marriott officials certainly would not choose words such as redemption, TOBA board member Ken Anthony said Thursday that the organization came to see its decision as giving the hotel "a second chance."

"There was considerable discussion," Anthony said. "There was discussions with some people at the Marriott, not just local, but people from their (national) corporate diversity division.

"There was considerable debate within the organization on whether we should or should not (use the hotel) because our name will be on the line as well. But after having discussions with the (Marriott), we felt they were sincere."

Ron McAnaugh, director of event management for the Waterside, downplayed the significance of hosting the TOBA breakfast five months after the punch bowl incident. He said the events were unrelated and that the Waterside had been pursuing the breakfast long before August.

"Many groups were looking for reassurances after that incident, and we reassured them it was a large and gross misconception," McAnaugh said. "The local community rallied behind us, and I think you see that same support through TOBA.

"The people in our own back yard know what we're about."

That may be so, but included in the TOBA press release for the breakfast is a statement from David M. Sampson, Marriott's corporate vice president for diversity initiatives, saying how pleased the hotel is to host the breakfast.

It's a good gesture. For so many, perception is reality, and the Waterside's role as host should go a long way in eliminating any negative judgments people may have formed about the hotel.

And why should we favor eliminating the negatives? Because ultimately, the case made by the Progressive National Baptist Convention was not strong enough to legitimately taint the hotel or the city.

Start with the fact that the conventioneer who claimed to have seen the tainting of the punch bowl never stepped forward publicly.

Perhaps, if the Waterside hotel had moved faster to assuage concerns, a walkout may have been averted.

But shouldn't accusations of racism be based on a pattern of behavior and not a lone incident? The race card must be played judiciously and intelligently. Facts must be substantiated and the displeasure must be clear.

None of those tangibles was evident when convention president the Rev. C. Mackey Daniels presented his case to the media. The organization has been quiet since reportedly hiring Johnnie Cochran as its lawyer.

No one answered the telephone at the convention headquarters Thursday, but Marriott's vice president of communications, Roger Conner, confirmed the dispute remains a pending legal issue.

It should not, however, remain an issue in Tampa.

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