Forty Years After Memphis

 Forty years ago, an assassin’s bullet stilled the voice of a prophet.  Columnists across the nation are addressing this painful anniversary.  Ray Bob Sanders, a columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, describes the sickening tide of remorse and dread that washed in with King’s assassination and never washed out: (“I may not get there with you“).  Sanders hopes that Black America is finally ready to cross over Jordan because the community has spent the past forty years wandering in the wilderness. 

New York Times columnist, David Brooks, gives us The View from Room 306, a piece inspired by a recent visit to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  Brooks describes two civil rights movements: one based on the dignity and non-violence Dr. King personified; and another characterised by resentment and mob violence.  Brooks suggests that King’s legacy has been betrayed by loud-mouthed demagogues who undermine the hard work of community-building and reinforcing a sense of personal responsibility.  According to Brooks, Barack Obama represents the resurgence of the dignified, scholarly, unifying spirit that died with MLK.

Eugene Robinson’s column, Two Black Americas, cuts beneath raw emotion and white aesthetics to the heart of the matter: for a significant minority of African Americans, social and economic conditions have actually deteriorated since 1968. 

How do we respond to the plight of the poorest 10%?  According to the conventional view, poor black people have only themselves to blame.  This is the perspective of Bill Cosby, Juan Williams, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter et al.  Radical black leaders, the thinking goes, have created a culture of complaint that encourages lazy, shiftless, dysfunctional and downright pathological people to blame their ills on white racism.  You know these folks could do better if they wanted to, the thinking goes, because most African Americans have adapted to the rigors of the American economy.

Does black America buy this analysis?  Yes and no.  Upwardly mobile blacks, in my experience, generally resent the black underclass for encouraging the association between blackness and crime, drug abuse, domestic collapse and violence.  On the other hand, the black middle class isn’t ready to give white America a pass.  Black resentment is alive and well, even in the suburbs.  Middle class blacks are especially critical of the white willingness to believe that racism has been largely relegated to this historical scrapheap.  

Eugene Robinson understands that the behavior of poor people is driven by hard economic reality.  Our society doesn’t have enough jobs or decent schools for everyone.  Those shut out of the Promised Land have a hard time making marriages work, making the rent (qualifying for a mortgage is completely out of the question), supporting children, or resisting the relentless allure of the underground economy. 

Asked to give a few shillings to the poor, Ebenezer Scrooge cried, “Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?”  The workhouse has largely been abolished, but the prison is very much with us.  There we warehouse the addicted, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded and the functionally illiterate. 

Poor people aren’t incarcerated for these deficiencies, of course, any more than they are not incarcerated for being black, brown or poor.  They are incarcerated for failing to live within the law.  But the less money you make, and the less education you possess, the harder it becomes to think right and fly straight.

Yesterday I was in the backwoods of Arkansas listening to Roy Lee Russell tell me how he and a corrupt state trooper faked drug cases on dozens of small-town black folk.  The despair of poverty clung to the rapidly decomposing shacks and trailers like the early morning fog.  Undercover drug busts simply deepen the dysfunction they are ostensibly designed to eradicate, and the folks in law enforcement know it.  Futility leads to cynicism which leads to lax standards and insitutional corruption.

By the time he died in Memphis, Martin Luther King had shifted his attention from voting rights and Jim Crow to the Viet Nam war and the blight of poverty.  His popularity was rapidly waning; his critics multiplying by the day.  Progressive white America  was recoiling in horror from King’s new message.  As Frederick Haynes, pastor of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, recently commented, “King didn’t die for having a dream”.

Barack Obama embraces the non-violent struggle Martin Luther King Jr. embodied.  Obama isn’t seething with resentment and he resists the temptation to blame all ills on white racism.  Personal responsibility and a commitment to family-building, he says, must be part of the solution.  But Obama agrees with Eugene Robinson on one critical point: we need more rungs on the economic ladder.

Tragically, most Americans would rather expand the prison than fix the ladder.  The mission of Friends of Justice is to reverse that trend.

 Alan Bean