“On the Eve of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday”

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These words and thoughts might very well be spoken by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he challenged America four decades ago in preparation for the “poor people’s campaign” of 1968. He urgently reminded America “that nothing

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“Most important we need to be ready to pay the price of civilization through multiple acts of good citizenship: bearing our fair share of taxes, educating ourselves deeply about society’s needs, acting as vigilant stewards of future generations, and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds society together”. –Jeffery D. Sachs

These words and thoughts might very well be spoken by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he challenged America four decades ago in preparation for the “poor people’s campaign” of 1968. He urgently reminded America “that nothing will be done until people of good will put their bodies and their souls in motion.” Dr. King believed that, ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation.

Jeffery Sachs is the macroeconomist who wrote “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening America Virtue and Prosperity,” published 2011. It is important to note that after Dr. King’s untimely death 44 years ago, America is still struggling with the same issues as documented in Sach’s book. Even though Dr. King was not a macroeconomist he had the intellectual capacity to “connect the dots.” He understood that even though America was the richest nation in the world, she still struggled with bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots. He argued “there is nothing new about poverty.” What is new is we now have the techniques and resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will, the compassionate, and the commitment.

As we look at the data today, we see our nations poverty rate jumped to 14.3 percent in 2009, its highest level since 1994 and that 43 million American are in need of the basic necessities of life (food, shelter and clothing) the highest level in 51 years. When we look at our beloved Chicago (my home town) the poverty rate jumps off the page, according to the current census data, 1 in every 3 African Americans (Black folk) are living in poverty. This is an un-nerving statistic when we think about the 180,000 African Americans who left, just moved out of our fair city since 2000. So, lets look at the hard cold facts, when we compare the poverty rate for white Chicagoans at 10 percent with that of Black Chicagoans at 32.2 percent; 50 percent of our Black students never graduate and 1 in 5 drop out each year, the loss of 180,000 Black Middle Class Chicagoans, we see the makings of a colossal social and economic disaster.

It is a small wonder that our neighborhoods are hurting with miles upon miles of shuttered retail stores. As I drive through our once proud neighborhoods I see tens of thousands of vacant lots and thousands of mortgage foreclosed homes. During my career, I have served as a volunteer on several pubic boards including the Chicago Plan Commission, Chicago Housing Authority and the Monitoring Commission on School Desegregation. From each of these major public bodies I am informed about the challenges facing our city. I am certain that if Dr. King were here today, he would say that a campaign for the poor need not begin in Washington D.C. He would say (like turn of the 20th century) Booker T. Washington “drop your buckets where you are and go to work.” We have much work to do right here at home.

Yet, there are national implications to our work. We must get past the illusion that a healthy white or Black society can be organized around a single-minded pursuit of wealth. America has exhausted herself in this mindless pursuit of individual and personal wealth. The Congress of the United States is hopelessly mired in its support of those who are only focused on obtaining personal wealth at the expense of all else. Sachs issues a harsh critique of the “elites on Wall Street and Big Oil” who have bought and paid for the majority of the members of both houses of the United States Congress and as he notes “are the most irresponsible and selfish of all.” Thus the grid lock between the reactionary forces in the Congress that oppose President Obama’s plans for economic recovery continues; resulting in 13 million unemployed Black, Latino, White and Asian Americans. There has been no period in recent history when more Blacks were unemployed than right now.

Black middle class must be among the first to understand that the last three decades of our own anemic efforts on behalf of the voiceless poor and underclass must come to a screeching halt now. We can no longer turn our backs and run away from our less fortunate Black sisters and brothers. I am not against self-improvement but I am for community improvement…and yes, race improvement. This does not mean that I am against any other race of people, but we as Blacks must get busy helping lift our own out of poverty. And if we are going to turn our backs on anything let us turn away from the idea that we must consume (buy) everything that the consumer driven media presents. Let us turn away from consuming that which we do not need and instead save and invest in our families, the places where we live. Let a new generation of entrepreneurs (business people) emerge and turn the vacant boarded stores into havens of commerce. Let us buy those vacant foreclosed homes, renovate them and provide housing together with jobs for those in need. Let us both teach ourselves and buy U.S. Savings Bonds. Let us begin our own campaign by investing (buying savings bonds) in America. Why let China be Americas leading creditor.

Rather than viewing our challenges as just problems – and I am sure Dr. King would agree – let’s seize the opportunity to turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones, to turn our nightmares into radiant dreams, and to let our faith in God chase away our fears. Dr. King would urgently remind us “before the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history, the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here…For more than two centuries our fore parents labored here without wages. They made cotton king, and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of the most humiliating and oppressive conditions. And yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to grow and develop…If the cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us,” the opposition and challenges of today will not deter us.

Finally, I am convinced that we can escape the shackles of our current economic mess. Being a man of Faith, I believe that “all things work together for those who love the Lord and are called to His purpose.” Next, as so aptly put by Professor Michael Dawson, we must get our social politics right by working to rebuild our own places of worship, our own families, our own schools, our own neighborhoods; family to family, church to church, block to block and business to business. As we do this we undertake the creation of what Sachs describes as a “mindful: society, one that promotes the personal virtues of self-awareness, moderation and the civic virtues of compassion for others and the ability to cooperate across the divides of class, race, religion and geography. Dr. King was right when he said “…with a renewed and confident faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform…our nation.” His often quoted prayer was “God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And on that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons and daughters of God will shout for joy.” May God bless and keep you. Remember, nobody is going to save us for us but us.

Now Run and Tell That.

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