As the nation gets set for the dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C, on Sunday, joy must be tempered with the realization that Dr. King won the civil rights struggle and was assassinated before he could complete the second part of his mission: economic rights.
Dr. King was shifting gear with the Poor People’s March and an emphasis on jobs and economic justice when he was killed some 43 years ago. It is all the more poignant that the memorial is being dedicated at a time of severe economic hardship that has reversed the gains of many African-American families, who could now be said to be living, financially speaking, once again in the 1960s.
The problem could be how the struggle for economic rights is perceived. The traditional view has seemed to be a demand that the larger society deliver on this promise, just as it did for civil rights. There is merit in such an expectation. White Americans were able to accumulate assets, even before the founding of the republic, but black Americans could not; they were themselves assets and chattels. Black Americans down through the centuries have had to struggle against a multitude of socio-economic problems emanating from that reality, low quality education and health care and low-paying jobs among them. Those problems have created almost insurmountable hurdles from generation to generation.
The call today, as the $120 million memorial to Dr. King is about to be dedicated, is, once again, for jobs and economic justice. But the question now must be: what path forward?
Unlike with civil rights, economic rights cannot be granted by someone else. That is not how the American system works. Well-intentioned town hall meetings and job fairs can have only limited success. They will have the immediate salutary benefit of helping some people get jobs at this time of acute financial hardship. But that is no more than a temporary fix, no different from many other supposed solutions to the plight of African Americans desperately seeking to find even a foothold in the world of American capitalism.
What has to be realized is that African Americans came out of political bondage through the leadership of Dr. King and many others at the helm of the civil rights movement – but have remained in economic bondage. The best way to break free of those shackles is to use the political freedoms that Dr. King and his colleagues won to disengage, as much as possible, from the system that makes this enslavement possible. That can be done at the domestic and external levels.
And the main hurdle there is capital – the very thing that African Americans have not really been able to accumulate. But it is not an insurmountable difficulty. Take, for instance, the world of sports. There must be at least a few hundred African-American professional athletes who make probably $2 million a year. That could easily be $1 billion in income. Some of that money can form a pool of capital to finance a major economic thrust in cities and communities where African Americans are the majority. It would not be charity but hard-nosed capitalistic investment that will pay for perhaps a chain of African-American-owned grocery stores, a chain of auto repair shops, a chain of mini-malls that cater to the special needs of black Americans.
In addition, African Americans are well-placed in some other high-income areas, such as entertainment, particularly music. They, too, can be part of a pool of investors in black America and provide lasting economic and employment benefits for the communities from which they came. Blacks, generally, do not own banks, but we have a lot of money available for investment.
Externally, the possibilities are just as exciting. Trade and economic relationships can be formed with countries, or segments within countries, that have substantial black populations, such as Africa and, closer home, the Caribbean. Recent reports out of Africa tell the sad story of rich foreigners – not rich black foreigners – including institutions such as American universities and hedge funds buying up large tracts of African land, some of it to grow crops for ethanol on a continent that is periodically hit by severe drought and famine, as is happening now. Yet, African Americans with the skill and financial resources to partner with Africans in sound agricultural and other development have stayed on the sidelines.
So, even as some are attempting to nudge President Barack Obama to become reacquainted with the other half of his heritage, as they see it, and do more for black America, it is past time for black America to move firmly away from economic dependency and bondage and into a future of self-sufficiency. The chains of economic bondage can be broken.