Last month, the world marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. We watched as the U.S., in particular, paid tribute through documentaries, special broadcast programs, tributes, marches, parades, sweeping accolades by public officials and the requisite constant recitation of the “I Have a Dream” speech.
In its customary pattern, the U.S. government remained true to promoting its overly hyperbolic, self-congratulatory rhetoric in the recollection of its role in MLK’s life, struggles, failures, and accomplishments. If African Americans, and others, are not careful, we might be unconsciously led down a primrose path of believing that America’s leaders, at the time, actually favored equal treatment and respect under the law for its Black citizens.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. So while the nation wraps itself up in the artificial reminiscence of how beloved King was; we would be mindful to remember the appalling treatment he endured; most often at the hands of America itself. After 50 years that same treatment has been visited upon the families of the likes of Michael Johnson, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Travon Martin and too many others in these so-called enlightened days of the 21st century. King knew this treatment all too well.
In fact, it was the U.S. government that sought to malign and destroy MLK and the movement in general. The unrelenting surveillance and persistent wire taping of his travels and communications by the FBI were widely condoned throughout the federal government. Their designs were to discredit MLK in the eyes of the public, and African Americans especially. They alleged that King was a philanderer, a homosexual and even labeled him a communist during the height of the cold war—all this in order to muddy his respected name. He was dubbed “the most dangerous Negro leader in America.” After all the eavesdropping and clandestine machinations of the government, approved by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the FBI found zero indications of nefarious behavior on King’s behalf.
Following all the bugs planted in his home, car, office and hotel rooms, they discovered nothing but a selfless, dedicated and devoted servant of the people. He was unconcerned, they found, with fame and notoriety and the contention of communist ties was nothing but a pile of bovine balderdash (more commonly referred to as B.S.).
This assertion would have been hilarious were it not so thoroughly tragic. Communism, by its very definition, calls for each citizen to engage in work according to the needs of the government. In other words, you are told what field of work you would accede based on societal demands. As such, our ancestors existed in a communist context with the confines of a constitutional democracy. As a people, we were all too familiar with the tenets of communism than democracy, in actions and deeds, if not under legal constructs. The larger question would be why would Black folk not be communists? It was the system under which we labored from 1620 until the late 1960s.
My great-great grandfather, for example, could not aspire to become a physician, an attorney, a scientist or matriculate into any other respectable profession for that matter. On the contrary, he was raised to do what the system required. Democracy, for our consanguinity, was nothing but a lie contained within those glorious documents touted by white folks that protected and ensured their freedom; those words did not apply to us.
The psychological folly and self-deception undertaken by the U.S. government resulted in widespread psychosomatic illusions by white citizens that Negroes actually liked being treated in such disparaging ways. For some 340 years, we languished and suffered so that others might find comfort from the pain they caused.
Therein lays MLK’s greatness—for he rescued the nation from its own self-imposed propagandized delusions.
He wrestled with the mischievous sprite and loosed the soul of the whole country. He forced the nation to collectively, if metaphorically, look at itself in the mirror and accept the fact that the U.S. Constitution was not worth the paper on which it was printed. For if all were not free as propagated in those founding documents—none of us were. Therefore, the entirety of America’s philosophical and literal worldwide status was built on nothing but a lie. King helped the country find its true character and to live up to what it claimed to be—one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
So here we are 50 years later compelled to take inventory of the past half-century while hoping to pass on to the next generation some measure of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come and the continued sojourn ahead.
There is no debate about the catastrophic breakdown in the Black family dynamic over the past 50 years, and it haunts us today. Our nation’s 1st African American president grew up in a fatherless household and has become the most effective and credible voice in advocating for Black men to become more responsible parents.
This issue, ironically, may have been borne out of sincere efforts on behalf of the government to help. President’s Johnson’s Great Society programs of the mid-1960s appear to have inadvertently created an environment where mothers and their children could receive federal benefits from the government as long as there was no adult male presence in the home.
By becoming the primary provider of essential familial needs, the federal government essentially became the father within our families; replacing the biological dad. The mother could receive assistance with food, housing and financial support from Uncle Sam. The catch was that the father must be absent. Therefore, the larger question is, did these assistance programs hasten the demise of our families?
Today, more than 70 percent of African American children grow up in a home headed by a single mother. In 1965, only eight percent of Black children were born out-of-wedlock. Children who grow up with a single mother are overwhelmingly more likely to drop out of school, become teen parents and live in poverty.
Add to this, the devastating consequences of drug laws that delivered far harsher and unsympathetic treatment to Black men who became tragically ensnared in the criminal justice system; the sense of nihilism has been catapulted to new heights. The hopes of getting a decent job and supporting a family are significantly diminished. If the breakdown of the family causes poverty in our community, then poverty also results in family breakdown.
The economic strength of the African American community will soon reach $1.5 trillion. To quantify this number and put it into some context, this number is equivalent to the gross domestic product of Russia and South Korea. If we were a nation, we would be the 12th richest country on the planet. Although macro-economists will quickly tell you that GDP and buying power are not the same, since we are not a country exclusive of the U.S., I believe that it provides, at least, some context.
Our collective economic strength makes us a prime market for advertisers, marketers and those who desire to influence our buying behaviors. Yet, the larger question is not how much we can buy but whether we can control and direct the spending? If we have jurisdiction to strategically determine where our money goes, should we do more to direct that flow into our communities nationally?
According to a recent Nielsen study, Black households with earnings of $75,000 or more is the fastest growing segment of the black population. There are now between 2.5 to 3 million Black-owned businesses around the country.
In just about every category, we have been growing—sadly not enough. Our median family income in 1968 (inflation adjusted) was approximately $22,000. It is around $40,000 today. Our unemployment rate, while down is still twice that of white Americans. That has not changed appreciably since the early 1970s.
Our overall poverty rate has decreased from around 40 percent in the 1960s to just fewer than 27 percent today. Our child poverty rate is down from 67 percent to about 40 percent—although still unacceptable. The wealth gap between African Americans and whites hovers around 5-to-1.
In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, civil rights attorney, Michelle Alexander, asserts that there are now more Blacks in jail today than were slaves in America in 1850. It is a stunning revelation of the continued exploitation of Black people for free labor in this nation. Yet, it is now been shrouded and sold to the American people as some outlandish form of law enforcement.
U.S. prisons, over the past 50 years, have become nothing more than a replacement of the convention of slavery. They are de facto profit centers that seek to build and sustain a lasting system of second-class citizens without the rights and freedom provided in the nation’s founding documents. It matters very little to our government when those convicted have paid their debt to society for they are forever cast in the eyes of the general public as dangerous, undesirable and malevolent. As a result, the right to vote or obtain meaningful employment is lost forever; contributing to the current decline in the conditions of the Black family. It is no accident.
The over-representation of African American men in U.S. jails seems to only confirm the intrinsic bias of a society that finds it easier to conclude that black men are inherent, by our very nature, prone to violence and crime. We are often determined to be guilty until proven innocent. I cannot imagine what the impression would be if we routinely walked into school buildings, movie theatres and churches committing mass murder.
It is a fact that, much like the slave catcher of the 19th century and the racist southern sheriff of the first two-thirds of the 20th century, police routinely hunt African American men and boys for the sport as if we are nothing more than the big game on the savannah. We are consistently hounded and oppressed by those sworn to protect us. Our cries fall on deaf ears as a result of the negative images and reflections promulgated by the U.S. regarding Black men worldwide for centuries.
Our criminal justice system today reveals strong parallels between the so-called “prison industrial complex” and the American institution of slavery and continues to perpetuate the marginalization of Black people. For us, there is no justice in the alleged criminal justice system.
The Black Lives Matter Movement has done an admirable job in attempting to articulate an associated analysis of the ways that race has been leveraged as a weapon to thrash some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens. Their voices continue to echo the spirit and resolve of the Civil Rights Movement.
Our political power has grown significantly since 1968. The Black voter turnout in 2012, for instance, exceeded that of the white population. The number of Black elected officials has exploded by seven times.
For the past 50 years, Black political leadership has been on an upward trajectory. For example, in the mid-1960s, there were zero Black senators, zero black governors and only six Black members of Congress. Today, there are three U.S. senators and 44 members in the U.S. House of Representatives. There have been three black governors in recent history and presidential cabinet-level officials have basically remained in parity with the overall black population at about 14 percent for the past 20 years; of course until the Trump administration with one single Black cabinet member, one potential Hispanic member with the nomination of Alexander Acosta as Labor Secretary, and one Asian.
The first generation of Black mayors began with the elections Richard Hatcher of Hatcher in Gary, Indiana and Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Ohio in 1967. Today, being a Black mayor of a major city does not turn any heads. Serving as mayor in the 21st century tends to be more about leveraging political power than considering possibilities to serve. There are currently 470 Black mayors in the office across the U.S. The total number of Black elected officials nationwide stood at 1,500 in 1970 and there are currently more than 10,500 in an office today.
According to the Joint Center for Politics and Economic Studies, more than half of African American mayors have been elected in large cities that do not have a Black majority. This is a clear sign that progress has been made in the area of political leadership.
As the assistant principal of T.C. Williams High School in the late 1990s, made famous by the movie, “Remember the Titans,” I would often wonder out loud how the City of Alexandria, Virginia with a population of just under 140,000 residents could have only one public high school.
It quickly dawned on me. Our nation’s schools are re-segregating. This reality is quickly becoming a tale of two cities; not just in Alexandria. For instance, a review of federal education data has found that in practically every major American city, students of color are more probable than their white peers to attend public schools in communities compromised by poverty.
According to the National Equity Atlas, in 90 of the 95 biggest cities according to population, more minority students than white students attend a public school where the majority of their friends qualify for free and reduced lunch under the federal Title 1 Program. In 75 percent of the largest cities, the share of minority students at mostly low-incomeschools were found to be at least 20 points higher than the share of white students and in 29 percent of the cities, that number is as high as 40 percent.
Our graduation rates have experienced significant growth in the past 50 years. In the mid-1960s, for example, 25 percent of African Americans completed high school. Today, that number is 75 percent according to the National Institute for Education Statistics. The data also reveals that 88 percent of white students, 78 percent of Hispanic students, 90 percent of Asian-Pacific Islanders and 72 percent of Native Americans received a high school diploma in 2016.
College graduation rates among African Americans stood at four percent in the mid-1960s; today, just above 21 percent of Blacks have a four degree. The rate for whites is 34 percent and 15 percent of Hispanics have completed a four-year degree—so says Excelencia in Education.
Perhaps the most vexing issue confronting Blacks in America’s public schools continue to be the achievement gap; defined as the disparity in test score performance by racial sub-group. In 2015, for example, the average Black 12th grader scored in the 19th percentile in math and the 22nd percentile in reading. This means that 81 percent and 78 percent of white 12th graders out performed their Black peers. SAT score distribution also shows a gap in academic performance. The combined math and reading scores for the Black student in 2017 stood at 941. For white students it was 1,118; Hispanics scored 987, Asian achieved a score of 1,181 and Native Americans scored 963.
Given all this, it is clear that we have come a long way towards realizing MLK’s dream of equality for all.
However, there is clearly considerable work to be done. I would hope that he would be pleased to know that the nation as a whole has embraced many of his doctrines. There has been no greater example than the “March for our Lives” movement over the past weeks. The American cultural rainbow was on full display and in essence and it seems to sum up MLK’s dream as he expressed, “Let freedom ring…and when we allow freedom to ring, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men, and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands…” This has, by most measures, come to pass.
While we are far from a utopian reality, the progress that MLK foretold is becoming even clearer and that prophesized promise land has suddenly, and at long last, appeared upon the horizon.
Editor’s note: Alfonzo Porter is the Managing Partner of Vertex Learning, a national education consultancy. He teaches Journalism at MSU-Denver and is a former contributing writer with the Washington Post. He is an author, speaker, and former public school administrator.