Dr. King dreamed of the day that African-Americans would enjoy a full measure of freedom; however, he knew that we would not enjoy a full measure of freedom until we gained economic empowerment.
Dr. King dreamed of the day that African-Americans would enjoy a full measure of freedom; however, he knew that we would not enjoy a full measure of freedom until we gained economic empowerment. The last speech that he gave before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, dealt with the subject of the necessity of African American economic empowerment. Many of the major corporations that he challenged will take out full-page ads commemorating Dr. King and his dream, and on the other hand, will deny any business opportunity or shelf space to African American business interests.
I believe that Dr. King would be greatly disturbed, if he were to return to see nearly all of the businesses in the African-American community being run by everyone, to the exclusion of the Black people that live there. If you but look to the businesses in all other ethnic communities, these businesses reflect the people that live there. This holds true for every community except the African -American community, where the opposite is true.
It would sadden Dr. King to see a large percentage of major retailers who are strategically located in the African-American community, and supported almost exclusively by African-American consumer dollars, routinely deny any business opportunity or shelf space whatsoever to African-American business interests. The most egregious of this group is Target, the second largest retailer in the country, with a store at 85th and Cottage Grove Avenue and whose consumer base is 99 percent African American, who boasts of the handouts they give to community residents and at the same time, deny Parker House Sausage, Baldwin Ice Cream and Reggio’s Pizza, the only three African American food manufacturers in the country, any shelf space whatsoever, at that store or any of their stores throughout the United States.
It would move Dr. King to tears, if he were to return and see African American and Hispanic young men brutalizing and killing each other at an alarming rate. African Americans and Hispanics occupy the lowest wrung on the economic ladder and I am convinced that these young men involve themselves in acts of violence because of the overall poor economic conditions that exist in their communities and translate to their homes. When they can’t find the basic economic necessities and other needs at home, they seek these basic resources through the gangs and in the streets. Without question, there is a direct correlation between economic empowerment and the quality of life.
If we would but empower and change the economic landscape in the African-American and Hispanic communities, the social problems that exist there would fall into place and the killing would stop. On a high note, Dr. King would be overjoyed if he were to return and see that the 44th president of the United States is of African descent. Nevertheless, he would drop his head in shame when he learned that we are still struggling with the issue of discrimination and inequality. He would be astounded to learn that although African-Americans represent 12-15 percent of the population of the United States, less than one-half of one percent of the contracts and business opportunities go to African American business interests from the federal government.
Recently, the Black Caucus challenged President Obama to do more for the African American community, who have suffered the longest and the most. The rationale was that the government bailed out the financial institutions to the tune of 700 Billion dollars or more and that something should be done during these tough economic times, when the least of these needed some help.
Conventional wisdom would say that doing something special for the African American community or poor people generally, should be in order. Notwithstanding the fairness of this proposition, some people say he would be committing political suicide if he would do anything “special” for the downtrodden and African American community. My belief is that President Obama should not necessarily do anything special for the African American community, nevertheless, he should insist upon fairness. Fairness would mean that the government should distribute on a fair basis, the percentage of contracts, grants, and educational appropriations, etc. commensurate with the level of our population representation. If the playing field was made level and we received our fair share, then, there would be no need to ask for anything special.
Case in point, it took Reggio’s Pizza, the only African American frozen pizza manufacturer in the country, who employs about 200 people, 15 years of struggle, to get any type of distribution of our frozen pizza product in the military commissaries, when African American soldiers represent approximately 22 percent of the armed forces. This opportunity came just recently. The Defense Commissary Agency is part of the federal government and as such, should be in the forefront of providing opportunity to those of us who have been historically disenfranchised.
During the Bush administration, Reggio’s Pizza was selected by the United States Department of Commerce as the National Minority Retail Firm of the Year. Nevertheless, when we asked about distribution opportunity at the Defense Commissary, the response was in essence “your selection for the award did not mean that we were really serious about promoting economic opportunity for minorities.”
There will be many celebrations to commemorate Dr. King’s birthday, as there should be. I only hope that those who celebrate and commemorate this man of greatness will begin and renew the fight to make Dr. King’s dream of justice and equality a reality. To paraphrase him, as he began on his long journey for freedom for an oppressed people that began in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala. when he spoke the words of Amos from the Old Testament: Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Then finally, Dr. King’s dream would be a dream fulfilled. John Clark Jr. is president/CEO of Reggio’s Pizza, Inc.
Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender.