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To Honor King We Must Follow the Money
1/25/2017 3:16:55 PM

By Barney Blakeney 

When I decided last week I’d write about economics and the black community, Donald Trump had not yet been inaugurated as President of the United States. I had decided to write about black economics – at least the need for more focus on black economics – out of a frustration I felt as the country celebrated another Martin L. King Jr. birthday anniversary. Each year since 1983, the nation has celebrated King’s birthday as a national holiday with ceremonies focused on civil rights and rebroadcasts of King’s speeches. While King certainly stood for obtaining civil rights for all citizens, he also stood for economic justice.

I often hear criticism that black folks have focused on civil rights equality almost exclusively when it may have been more advantageous to focus on economic equality. I sometimes reflect on black folks’ journey from riding on the back of the bus to now driving the bus. Nowadays it’s rare to see a white bus driver in our community. If you want to see white folks driving anything at CARTA, you have to go to their headquarters. That’s where they’re in the driver’s seat. As Malcolm X might say, when it comes to black folks and buses, we’ve been hoodwinked and bamboozled.

Listening to all the righteous ceremony in celebration of King’s birthday, I thought it might be appropriate to write something about King’s focus on economics and our collective need to do the same. It seems we forget that King was assassinated while on a mission advocating economic justice – he was in Memphis in support of sanitation workers seeking better pay and working conditions – economics!

One writer recently noted King is recognized throughout the world as a civil rights champion, but during his final five years King had an increasing focus on economic rights - more importantly, economic empowerment.

Cliff Albright wrote in an online Justice Initiative piece, “The 1963 March on Washington also had a broader focus than many think. After all, the full name of the march was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In addition to the civil rights topics that we usually associate with the march, such as desegregated public accommodations, desegregated schools and voting rights, the list of demands included: a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages, a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living ($2.00 an hour was the target at the time.), a broadened Fair Labor Standards Act and a federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination.”

He noted that the $2-per-hour minimum wage that the movement was seeking in 1963 is worth slightly more than $15 per hour in today's terms. Thus, there is a direct connection to today's campaigns that raising the federal minimum wage to a living wage (and local government versions of such increases). In a very real sense, we are still fighting for the wages that Dr. King was demanding in 1963, Albright said.

Nearly 50 years after King’s assassination, amid all the pomp and circumstance surrounding his birthday celebration, like most of the things King fought for economic justice continues to escape our grasp.

Last week I talked with Anthony Freeman of Mount Pleasant’s Four Mile community. He remembers when U.S. Highway 17 North east of the Cooper River was a two-lane road from the Charleston peninsula all the way to Myrtle Beach. Once you got to the Four Mile area, the sweetgrass basket ladies had their stands along the side of the road from which they sold their baskets. Today, not only have the sweetgrass basket stands been displaced, the residents who sewed the baskets also have been displaced. Predominantly white residential subdivisions now occupy the communities where black folks once lived. And people who owned that land for 100 years can’t afford to stay there. Talk about your economic injustice!

I’m seeing the same thing play out in North Charleston where the S.C. State Port Authority bamboozled its way onto the former Charleston Naval Base. Many of us know the story of how the SPA got to North Charleston when it originally planned the facility for Daniel Island. It displaced hundreds of Black folks who also had lived on their land for generations. That economic injustice displaced hundreds of black families east of the Cooper River and now will displace hundreds of black families in Rosemont, Union Heights and Accabee. All of King’s horses and all of King’s men won’t be able to put that Humpty Dumpty back together again.

From South Santee to Ravenel black folks are the victims of economic injustice in Charleston County. Change the name and it could be Anywhere, USA. I met with a group of men the other day and asked how one could keep up with the complicated society we call home. One guy said, “Just follow the money! Want to know how the dynamics of any effort plays out? Just follow the money.”

As Donald Trump ascends the throne that is the American Presidency, black folks seem mystified as to their economic survival under a hostile regime.

We worry about losing Obamacare when universal health care should have been the goal in the first place. We gave up economic power for a ride in the front seat of a bus and a room at the local Motel 6. With more than $1 trillion in spending power we don’t produce any of the stuff we buy.

Albright wrote something else in the piece I recently read. He said, “This is why recent calls for targeted boycotts, such as Backing Black Business site launched by Black Lives Matter, all have the potential for significant impact. However, for this to take place, the Black community must fully understand the strategies that Dr. King was calling for and implementing, and we must be fully committed to carrying those strategies out.”

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