In the dark days of the ‘60s, when the civil-rights struggle was at its peak, the nation tried to come up with remedies for a myriad of urban problems and began to experiment with various ways to fight poverty. 

Because Washington state had two powerful senators, the first poverty program in the nation ended up in Seattle, and that organization was called the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP).

It brought together the best and brightest minds in the African-American community to run the agency and to serve on the board. Even as the community has begun to change racially, CAMP remained true to its mission of serving the underserved in the African-American community, as well as poor people from all walks of life.

But the agency was designed originally to serve the African-American community, and it has been a place where the community met and strategized on its goals and missions. Now, things have changed because a new executive director and board have quietly decided that the African-American community focus must be abandoned for a more generic mission.

In several community meetings, former board members and directors have clearly said that they and other longtime Seattle black residents believe that eliminating CAMP eliminates the history of a community and wipes out the history of a host of leaders who have served as director and board members for the last 45-plus years.

The new director has been steadfast in her belief that neither she nor the board have done anything wrong or should change the name back. CAMP no longer exists: The agency has changed its name, signs and brochures to Centerstone and made it clear that its mission goes far beyond the African-American community — though exactly where that is, no one seems clear. What is clear is that “African American” has been stricken from the mission statement and replaced with “immigrants” and “refugees.”


The battle ahead

Now, a community is at war with itself, and a host of civil-rights-era leaders are demanding that the director and board resign and the agency return to its core mission of serving the African-American community. 

The activists and others at the meeting emphasized that the director was hired to run an agency that primarily served the African-American community and not to go off and create something in her own image.

The battle lines have been drawn, and over the weeks to come, other meetings between the community and the board leadership have been scheduled — this time led by Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell. 

Some see further meetings as a waste of time, and angry community activists have emphasized that they will take direct action because they believe it is necessary to draw a line in the sand. The community members believe that they are fighting for their very lives and losing this key agency will be disastrous for the future of the black community.

Maybe by the time this is printed, the issue will be resolved, but that is not likely. What is more likely is that board meetings and the normal operation of the agency will be disrupted and the leaders of CAMP will be picketed at their office and at their homes, because the African-American community has no intention of backing down on this issue.

So many of the things that the African-American community fought so hard for have now disappeared and are now no more than a historical footnote. This coalition of organizations in the African-American community doesn’t want that to be what happens to the Central Area Motivation Program, and it appears that there will be no compromise. 

CHARLIE JAMES is co-founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Institute ( To comment on this column, write to