Jhb_in_rwanda_2by John Hope Bryant
Founder, Chairman
Chief Executive Officer
Operation HOPE, Inc.

September 12, 2006
Published by Black Business New in Los Angeles and the Black Business Association

As we head towards the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Poor People’s Campaign (April, 1968 – April, 2008),” which Andrew Young helped Dr. King both craft and implement during those fateful days leading up to Dr. King’s assassination, the question is not so much “what did Andrew Young do” (the much talked about Sentinel Newspaper interview), but what are we going to do, from here?  The issue in Dr. King’s final days was poverty then, and it is poverty now.

As I have said, “over the last 40 years we have become experts at what we are against. But over the next 40 years, we must increasingly become experts at what we are for.” And what are we for Black America? This is the question before us today.  Ambassador Andrew Young believes he has part of the answer.

Frankly, I think part of the answer is “silver rights.” Frederick Douglass understood that slavery is maintained by ignorance. If that’s true, then in an economic era we have to all be about understanding money, and financial literacy education for our children, economic education, counseling and empowerment for you and me, and ownership for us all. In the 21st century, the fight for equality and justice will not be waged and won in the streets, but the suites; from corporate boardrooms to inner-city classrooms. In the 21st century, education will be the ultimate poverty eradication tool, because when you know better, you tend to do better.

In the final analysis, a “silver rights” movement means making capitalism and the free enterprise system work for poor people. That the issue of the 21st century – both here and around the world – is poverty. The last piece of unfinished business in America today.

In the civil rights movement our leaders dealt with issues of race and the color line, and the mostly legal barriers that kept us from a measure of justice and dignity. But in the silver rights movement we must find new ways to address issues of class and poverty in America. We need a new strategy and a fresh new approach to achieving justice and dignity for ourselves and our community, because what we have been doing for the last 40 some-odd years, respectfully stated, simply has not worked.

What we need to do is to learn the game; to integrate the money, just like we integrated the lunch counter.

Andrew Young once told me, “capitalism, with no true access to capital, is nothing more than a sophisticated form of slavery.” I agree with him. And this is what Andrew Young was talking about when he raised the Wal-Mart issue in our community in the first place.  Now, is Wal-Mart a perfect company?  Absolutely not, but they never said they were.

What they are is a highly profitable, self-focused (and while Young was there at least, increasingly “enlightened”), economic giant, interested in making (more) money and growing shareholder value. Now friends, that’s not evil, that’s simply business. Always has been. Israel’s Shimon Peres once told me, “even if you want to distribute money like a socialist, you first have to collect like a capitalist.” Enough said.

And here is something else they are not, or at least shouldn’t be: our sworn mortal enemy. Our only enemy is poverty. And less than perfect company or not, anytime you have 8,000 black folks showing up recently for 500 jobs in inner-city Atlanta, for a recently opened Wal-Mart, the community has spoken. And here are some other folks who have spoken about Wal-Mart; the 120 million poor and working class people who shop there every week. That is more than voted in the last Presidential election, from both political parties, I might add. How do you say “voting with your feet?” Now, I challenge the critics of Andrew Young to stop attacking him, and go attack, or better yet picket some of these 120 million black and brown folks, and see how far that gets them. End of story. Why? Because these are the same people who are proud union card carrying members (an estimated 70% of all card carrying union members shop at Wal-Mart, accordingly to a recent survey), and they are the same people that fill the pews of black mega-church congregations, and support organizations from the NAACP, to the Urban League, to the SCLC, to the Black Business Association to Operation HOPE.   

Our only problem with the free enterprise system is that not enough of our people understand and are an integral part of it. As a result our focus here at Operation HOPE is on teaching 5 million low-wealth black and brown children about money and financial literacy in our community. We have already educated more than 190,000 children, in 700 inner-city schools, with 3,500 volunteers from the private sector.  This is what happens when you seek to partner folks into progress, and not just protest folks into submission (although there are times when protests are wholly appropriate).  In is not one approach or the other, but both.

Furthermore, our only problem with capitalism is that not enough of our people have enough of it!  That is why Dr. King said in 1968, with the birth of the Poor People’s Campaign, “you cannot legislate goodness, or pass a law to force someone to like or respect you. … (that) the only way to social justice in a capitalist country is economic parity.” Amen. And that is why Operation HOPE has been focused, ever since the Rodney King riots of 1992, on the power of empowering our community; converting check cashing customers into banking customers, renters into homeowners, small business dreamers into small business owners, minimum wage workers into living wage workers, and the economically uneducated into the economically empowered.

Moving our people up and out of poverty. From the poverty rolls to the payrolls, and hopefully the tax rolls too. Our goal is to fund $1 billion in new low-wealth homeownership and small business ownership, and we have funded $150 million to date, creating more than 700 inner-city homeowners and 300 new minority small business owners. This is hope in action.

While there are many answers to our dilemma in the inner-city, I would argue strongly that keeping Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, out of our community is not one of them. Not only because shopping there saves the average family $2,500.00 a year (that’s 10% for a family making $25,000 a year), but them entering our communities creates much needed competition for many businesses “serving stale bread, not serving, and overcharging our communities for years.” Yes, I said it. 

At the end of the day, you can love or hate Wal-Mart, either is fine with
me, but let’s at least be smarter about how we respond. Andrew Young was interested in results, not rhetoric. He understood that Wal-Mart, founded by entrepreneur Sam Walton as a high value, low-cost provider-business model, was really the only major retail company of its time willing to literally bank on the poor. Result: today Wal-Mart has a higher stock price as a result of serving the poor and the working class than Neiman Marcus has serving the rich. Hello.

Young also knew that it would be tough to get true access to capital for our community if we continued to keep folks with money out. Hello, again.

What we want is to let them in, help them do well, and then demand our reasonable share of the jobs, supplier contracts, and opportunities for advancement. This is precisely what Ambassador Young did as mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, and how he attracted billions of dollars of foreign investment to Atlanta, and as a result helped to create countless black millionaires in the city. But Young was also being very practical; you see, Wal-Mart is not going away, and the global economy is here to stay, so you might as well find a way to make both of them work for us.

As a practical matter, you don’t ignore the CEO of the largest retailer in the world, and the largest employer of black folks in the country. Cursing them out, as some sort of twisted strategy to get them to do what you want, is not much smarter.  As a friend of mine said of the then Young/Wal-Mart relationship, “I would rather have Andrew Young at the table (with the CEO) representing my interest, than not.” Hello, three times.

And here is another question we need to ask ourselves — why are the issues of capitalism, “doing well,” and benefiting from the free enterprise system, somehow “owned” by the Republican Party? The Democratic Party has to make its case for ownership and empowerment too. Because at the end of the day, what we are all looking for is not so much about the Republican Party nor respectfully, the Democratic Party, but the “Get It Done Party.” We just want someone to get it done!

Earlier this year, I was honored to receive the 2006 Black Business of the Year Award from the Black Business Association of Los Angeles. Honored because if we are going to have a future, and I believe we do, and will, it will depend on us once again embracing our roots; becoming entrepreneurs, business owners, and self-employment projects.

And if we don’t, we may end up like my dear friends in Harlem, New York, who without a major shift of focus over the next few short years may end up with the very real prospect of owning only a sign, posted on two homes, reading, “black folk, once lived here.”  This is not racism, its capitalism, and in coming years we have to find a way to get some more for ourselves.

Onward, with HOPE

John Hope Bryant


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