By Pastor Bernie Miller
posted February 18, 2007
The late Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live." Black History Month recalls scores of African Americans — Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, Shirley Chisholm and Dr. Martin Luther King, among them — whose lives gave us tremendous gains because of their willingness to die to self so that others may benefit. These courageous men and women were so dissatisfied with the status quo that they were willing to put their lives and reputations on the line for values in which they believed. The Civil Rights Movement was born on December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. This incident led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by Dr. King, then the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
During that period Dr. King leveled a stinging indictment against the "religious community" saying that it "is largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice. The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority." Dr. King dreamed of elevating the dignity, worth, and freedom of all people.
Growing up in a segregated world, blacks found few avenues to power and worth. A popular route was to become ministers or rights activists and to try to get elected to school boards, city councils, state legislatures, and then hopefully to Congress. During Reconstruction, 1500 African-Americans were elected to the U.S. Congress and other important federal and state posts. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, there have only been three post-Reconstruction black senators, and before Deval Patrick’s victory in Massachusetts, one governor — Virginia’s Douglas Wilder. Sadly, the Civil Rights movement did not completely level the economic playing field or restore the balance of political power in America. It did, however, expose deep-seeded prejudice and bigotry.
The movement’s “I marched with King” group is being challenged by a new generation of black activists marching to a different beat. Rather than embrace the victomhood mentality that some detrimentally use as an excuse for their predicament, this new generation believes that America really is a land of opportunity, while being acutely aware that racism still exists. This new group is focused on business development, job creation, home ownership and education.
Frederick Douglas said “Education means emancipation.” Unfortunately, the school drop out rate is 50 percent nationwide for Blacks and Latinos. “Without education” Douglas said "man lives within the narrow, dark and grimy walls of ignorance. He is a poor prisoner without hope.”
Last year a “silver rights” summit was held in Washington D.C. John Hope Bryant, founder of Operation Hope, an advocacy group aimed at securing those rights, said, “Civil rights was about civil liberties and justice; silver rights will be about financial literacy and access to capital to develop poor inner-city communities.” Bryant added, “Financial literacy is key to a healthy economy and inner-city communities are emerging markets.”
The economy of the community determines housing and school standards. Booker T. Washington, a proponent for building black capitalism, envisioned forging a close partnership between wealthy and powerful whites with the aspiring black entrepreneurial middle class. Washington's idea would significantly close the wealth gap.
In 1960, when the civil rights movement was getting under way, only 45 percent of blacks lived above the poverty line. Today, three-quarters do. In fact, one-third of blacks make over $50,000 a year, while only one-quarter remain poor; 16 percent of blacks earn over $75,000 each year. Still, Bill Gates and Larry Elision together, have more wealth than the combined wealth of all 36 million blacks in America. As a community we must recognize that the true standard by which we are measured is not the amount of affluence we create but rather the amount of inequity and desperation we tolerate.
Black History month is a time to remember and celebrate, but let’s move beyond symbolism. There are some economic, educational and political disparities that demand our attention.
To quote Frederick Douglas, “I think the situation is serious but it is not hopeless. There are many encouraging signs in the moral skies.”