Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could have denounced American society as hopelessly and irredeemably racist. Looking around at the racial barriers erected by Jim Crow America, it was hard to see how any progress could be made without challenging the basic legal and constitutional principles of the nation.
Yet King refused to succumb to despair, and instead insisted that the very principles of law and Constitution that seemed to be oppressive were, in fact, promises of freedom to all, without regard to race. As he noted in his “I Have a Dream” speech, the founding American principles were a promissory note to be cashed by all who lived here, not a rejection slip.
King — whom I had the pleasure of meeting a few months before his death — led the challenges and debates within the movement regarding course of action to address injustice. Never once was his goal to vilify white America and promote a narrative that condemns its founding principles and its birth defect of slavery as a chronic curse that has poisoned its soul forever. Instead, like many leaders before him, he fought to compel this country to live up to its promise of freedom and justice for all.
While many scholars and pundits will use the occasion of King’s birthday to rail against the enemies that have allied against black Americans, I want to challenge some of the debilitating myths that exist within black America, and to consider corrective action that can be taken.
One of the most pervasive myths is that soaring rates of black-on-black murders, tragic declines in education, and skyrocketing rates of out-of-wedlock births throughout the black community over the past four decades — as well as racial disparity of incarceration rates — are directly related to the legacy of slavery and the era of legal segregation, and that poverty has exacerbated these effects.
If racism and poverty were the culprits, then why did the black community not go to hell in a handbasket during the 10 years of this country’s economic depression when the nation had a negative GDP and the unemployment rate was 25 percent for whites and upwards of 40 percent for blacks? This was during the darkest days of segregation when blacks were being lynched and had no representation in government. Yet, through all of this, the black community exhibited health and wholeness.
During this period, the black marriage rate was the highest of any group in society. Black elderly could walk the streets of their neighborhoods without fear of being attacked by their grandchildren. The churches and other cultural institutions stood firm.
When blacks were locked out of the white economy they worked to establish their own. Even slavery could not keep in check the strong desire of blacks to achieve financial independence; 20 blacks who were born slaves died millionaires. In 1868, in Baltimore, 1,000 blacks who were fired for striking for higher wages established their own successful railroad company. When blacks were denied access to hotels, they built their own. Booker T. Washington partnered with Sears, Roebuck and Company leader Julius Rosenwald and built over 5,000 schools in the rural South to educate poor blacks. The black community was required to raise half the cost.
It is ironic that this rich legacy of self-help and self-determination went into decline when the walls of segregation were being torn down and the civil rights movement’s victories were blossoming. While centuries of social injustice could not weaken the black family, it took just five decades of the social policies of the War on Poverty to decimate it.
Following the 1965 Watts riots, liberal social planners at Columbia University School of Social Work posited a strategy of income redistribution to address poverty. The strategy incorporated removing the stigma of dependency, disconnecting work from income, and denying the value of a common culture. Welfare was defined as reparation, the nuclear family was dismissed as an oppressive European construct, and requirements for welfare payments were portrayed as demeaning.
Millions of blacks began to flood the system, particularly in New York, at a time when the unemployment rate among black males was 4 percent. Within the next 40 years, out of wedlock births soared to 70 percent. This gave rise to increases in crime and corresponding increases in black incarceration.
The race-grievance industry argues it is nothing less than oppression to say that black college students should adhere to principles of civil discourse; that black debaters should be held to time-honored standards of reasoned argumentation; and that students in English classes should be taught the canons of standard English. Exceptions must be made for them because nothing more should be asked, or expected, given their debilitating history. The ultimate irony of this argument is that it is almost indistinguishable from that of white supremacists, who similarly insist that blacks are unable to hold their own in white society.
Both are equally disabling. Both say to an aspiring young person of color, “Don’t bother struggling against your circumstances; the larger realities of your race have already determined that you cannot succeed in white society.”
Nothing could be further from the message of Dr. Martin Luther King. To honor him rightfully on the day that is dedicated in his name would be to remember the rich legacy of mutual aid, self-determination and personal responsibility that enabled blacks to achieve remarkable victories in spite of daunting odds and oppression, and to look to the oases of excellence in low-income communities today where these same values are producing inspiring models of achievement.
Robert L. Woodson Sr. founded The Woodson Center in 1981 to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address problems of their communities. He has headed the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice, and has been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Foundation for Public Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.