Today as we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. it’s helpful to look around and see where we are in 2012 in the battle against racism and the poverty that is a direct byproduct of racism. I recently heard an astounding statistic: the United States imprisons more Black men today – often for nonviolent drug offenses – than were enslaved in 1850 before the Emancipation Proclamation.
A historical look back is helpful. NCL’s founding in 1899 dates back to the Progressive Era, which was a time of historic reforms in America, but also a time of incredible backlash against former slaves and freedmen and women. Southern governments imposed a wide range of Jim Crow laws – laws and policies requiring Blacks to use different public facilities, live in different neighborhoods and go to different schools, during the Progressive era, often using the rationale that segregation resulted in a more orderly, systematic electoral system and society. Many of the steps that had been taken toward racial equality during the Reconstruction period were undone. The result is that Blacks were denied access to decent schools, housing, and good jobs that paid a living wage.
The founding of the NAACP was precipitated by this series of events. The Jim Crow practices of Southern leaders were regrettably given the blessings of the American judicial system, as in the famous case upholding the principle of racial segregation in the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Plessy found that as long as blacks were provided with “separate but equal” facilities, Black and White segregated schools were acceptable. The problem is, they weren’t equal at all. They were inferior school facilities.
Black leaders were divided on how best to respond cases like Plessy. Booker T. Washington urged that blacks should not actively agitate for equality, but should acquire craft skills, work industriously, and convince whites of their abilities. W. E. B. Du Bois insisted instead (in The Souls of Black Folk, 1903) that black people must ceaselessly protest Jim Crow laws, demand education in the highest professions as well as in crafts, and work for complete social integration. They didn’t like each other much, and their enmity grew. DuBois, who was close to Florence Kelley, NCL’s leader for our first 33 years, was the driving force behind the formation of an organization to fight for the rights of Black Americans. In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded to advance these ideals and Florence Kelley was involved in these early gatherings and today continues to be a vital and critically important organization as does the NCL.
Indeed, as I listened this week to financial guru Suze Orman, Harvard Professor Cornell West and media personality Tavis Smiley continue on their Poverty Tour of America this week, I was flanked on either side by friends from the NAACP. As we continue to work together to battle poverty and racism here are some stark statistics to contemplate:
- the black unemployment rate is twice that of whites.
- the average Black family’s household income fell 3 percent from 2009 to 2010, while white and Latino income fell only 1.7 and 2.3 percent, respectively.
- While poverty rates for all ethnic groups were in the double digits in 2010, the African-American community was faring the worst, by far. More than one in four Black Americans is now living below the poverty line.
- The economic gains made by African-Americans since the end of World War II and into the aughts have now been mostly decimated. Beyond that, the longer people are unemployed and poor, the less likely they are to be able to take advantage of educational opportunities, and the more likely the are to fall into bad habits
So while we celebrate the life of the great Martin Luther King, Jr. we can’t look at these terrible numbers and do justice to his memory unless we rededicate ourselves to fighting against the effort to destroy the middle class in America, to dismantle union and the decent jobs they provide paying good wages and benefits.
A local minister, Rev. William Lamar, the senior pastor at Turner Memorial AME Church in Hyattsville, Md says it well:
“When it comes to political discourse, during this presidential campaign season, I don’t hear the language that I think honors Dr. King. I don’t hear much talk about poverty, policy solutions to help with the large number of children in American who are living in low income situations. To really honor King, we need to reinvigorate King’s message of uniting Americans around solving the poverty and vast income inequality that exists in America.”
Thank you for those words, Reverend Lamar, and we join you in honoring the work of Dr. MLK Jr. by speaking out against poverty and encouraging our leaders to do so as well.