This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Birmingham Movement of 1963. Much is known about Dr. King's now famous Letter, but it is generally less known that the Birmingham Movement was rooted in economic justice and jobs.
And so, it was fitting that this week the organization I founded, Operation HOPE, marked the occasion by hosting a special HOPE Forum at our new HOPE Financial Dignity Center at Ebenezer in Atlanta, featuring U.S. Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry. Comptroller Curry regulates national banks with total assets of more than $12 trillion.
An authentic, thoughtful and caring leader with a direct impact on more than $12 trillion in banking assets, is precisely the sort of transformational leader we need to see more of in inner-city, rural and under-served communities in America. For me, it is all part of a growing movement and body of work, from civil rights justice, to civil rights empowerment for all.
But the visit to Atlanta and the HOPE Center Ebenezer, located within the larger Martin Luther King, Sr. Community Resource Complex, across from the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, was not a celebration of the vast economic progress that has been made since Dr. King's Letter From A Birmingham Jail. There has been progress, no doubt. Quite a bit in fact, but grossly uneven in its impact; even amongst African-Americans. A room full of Black prosperity is to be celebrated, but it not absent the reality of Black poverty and the unbanked which could be found less than 2 blocks away.
Frankly, much of what Dr. King attempted to deal with and address through his Birmingham Movement work, could very well be applied to the economic conditions today in both Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia.
In Birmingham, Alabama, where Operation HOPE will soon debut its silver rights empowerment work, blacks can sit where they like, and even go where they might, but what they cannot do entirely is to aspire on a level equal to their God-given rights. We can enter the restaurant, but can we pay the restaurant bill? We can stay at the hotel, but have we dreamed of owning a hotel property one day, and creating the jobs that come with it?
Lower incomes, lower education levels, lower ownership levels of small businesses and homes, and a slim hold on the economic levers of power typify the situation for African-Americans and other minorities throughout Birmingham, as well as other urban and rural cities throughout the state of Alabama. But this is not so much a complaint, as a fact. And it is not unique to Birmingham, or Alabama for that matter. Fact is, today the issue is not primarily race based, but (social) class and poverty. Or as I wrote about in a recent piece in the Huffington Post, "the new racism is poverty."
Today Birmingham and Atlanta both suffer from the ills of poverty at the lowest levels of society, be they black or be they white.
It is good to remember that Dr. King's final movement was not about race at all, but poverty and class. In fact, the Poor People's Campaign sought to bring together black, white, red, brown and yellow, under the umbrella of a new movement focused on wiping out poverty. Today like back then, the little known fact is that there is more white poverty in America than poor anyone else.
We are all in this together, so let's salute Dr. King's 50th anniversary by being about something beyond talk, or even good memories of the past.
Let's be about action -- right now.
A special acknowledgement to Dr. Bernice A. King, CEO of the King Center and member of the Operation HOPE Southeast Board of Directors, Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, 5th pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Ambassador Andrew Young, key lieutenant to Dr. King in the movement, former mayor of Atlanta, and present Global Spokesman for Operation HOPE.
John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum. Mr. Bryant is a thought leader represented by the Bright Sight Group for public speaking. Mr. Bryant serves on the board of directors of Ares Commercial Real Estate Corporation (NYSE: ACRE), a specialty finance company that is managed by an affiliate of Ares Management LLC, a global alternative asset manager with approximately $59 billion in committed capital under management as of December 31, 2012.