The door is open. It takes self-determination to move forward

The door is open. It takes self-determination to move forward
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In commemorating the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, who 50 years ago today was felled by an assassin’s bullet, it is important to look beyond the rage that erupted and use this opportunity to reflect upon the deeper meaning of his life. It should be an opportunity to engage in authentic soul-searching about whether actions taken in his name are really faithful to his intentions, or if we must make fundamental course corrections to fulfill his dream.

On a recent tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, among all the impressive artifacts that chronicled the tortured black experience in America and the many triumphs over those impossible barriers, one display stopped me in my tracks. It was a simple signboard that introduced the decade of the 1980s, and read:

“The 1980s were years of paradox. Enterprising women and men pursued advanced degrees and gained footholds in professional sectors. But many families lost access to services that kept children supervised and off the streets when the Reagan administration abandoned key social programs. The introduction of cheap drugs into the black communities spawned violence and incarceration with devastating consequences for black males and the black family. The message in hip-hop communicated these urban woes and called for civic action.”


I’ll leave to a future article the absurd assertion that hip-hop music is somehow a clarion call for civic action. It’s more important to focus on the “paradox” of the divergent trends within the black community and to correctly understand the root of the gap that steadily widened between two sectors of blacks in America. Is it truly institutional racism and heartless policies to reduce government programs that resulted in conditions today, in which a majority of blacks live in low-income, drug-infested, crime-ridden neighborhoods, where children from single-parent households run wild in the streets, while others are achieving professional degrees and securing comfortable salaries?

As we mark the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, the spotlight undoubtedly will shine on this paradox and people will cast plenty of blame. Unfortunately, there will be little debate. Honest debate could open the door to a search for solutions and provide an on-ramp for progress among those who have least. We should pose these questions:

  • If the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws is blamed for the rise in poverty in the black community and the decline in marriage and rise of out-of-wedlock births, why during the Depression years of the 1930s did blacks have the highest marriage rate among all groups in the country?
  • When blacks had little political power and faced legalized discrimination, why did they still make significant economic progress?
  • Why are black children failing in public school systems that are run largely by blacks and have some of the highest per-student expenditures?

Until the mid-1960s, black Americans understood that self-determination, perseverance, hard work, dedication to family, and commitment to faith-based values allowed us to thrive in the face of opposition. When we were denied access to banks, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and concert halls, we built our own. When we could not buy insurance, our churches established “burial societies” and mutual-aid societies offered assistance to the poor.

We protested against external oppressors but we also resisted the oppressive conditions of segregation and discrimination through performance, tapping our internal capacity. Hard work, cooperation, academic performance and moral excellence were elements of a strategy to achieve.

Tragically, we abandoned this rich history of self-determination in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement was intended to open the doors blocked by segregation so we could expand upon what we had accomplished, and voting rights were to be the keys to unlock that door. But the means became an end in themselves.

We assumed that the election and appointment of black officials was synonymous with providing solutions to problems the black community faced, particularly low-income blacks. In short, we won the right to vote but lost sight of what it meant to vote right, by voting with regard to race rather than self-interest.

After the Civil Rights Movement, blacks were elected to office in unprecedented numbers. The War on Poverty enticed poor blacks to sign up on the rolls of a steadily growing welfare system; assistance became a form of reparations to an entitlement-focused populace. Government programs and agencies took on the centrality that families, churches and civic institutions once held.  

Middle-class blacks migrated into government jobs in record numbers as anti-poverty programs poured money into the cities in a dramatic expansion of the welfare system. Professional blacks were stewards of that system. The goal was no longer to further progress made through self-determination but a pursuit of entitlements with a mentality of victimization. In short, self-degradation replaced self-determination.

As elected black officials failed to make substantive, empowering changes in policies, the promise of political power proved to be a hollow one. Cities that have been under black leadership for decades — Detroit, Newark, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington — are crime-infested, drug-ridden and rampant with poverty.  

Black America needs a course correction and a return to a culture based on self-determination, personal responsibility and strong moral values. The solutions to the most pressing problems are right before our eyes. But they are not in Washington or on Wall Street. They are in our neighborhoods that are suffering the problem.

When we can identify and support those solutions, we can revitalize the rich legacy of self-determination. For models of success, we can look to the history of our churches and civic institutions and what they achieved in spite of the odds. We can apply those lessons to the challenges we face today.  

The embers of self-determination continue to burn among many in underserved black communities. More than 30 percent of black families living in drug- and crime-ridden neighborhoods are raising children who do not drop out of school or take or sell drugs; they are achieving against the odds. We need to reignite the fires of liberation to ensure the future prospect of Dr. King’s dream.

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.