By Richard Muhammad, Contributing Editor and
Ashahed M. Muhammad, Assistant Editor

Black America still struggles for freedom, justice and equality

( – On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was brutally gunned down, assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. After his death, a spontaneous and collective expression of Black rage erupted with rioting breaking out in over 100 cities across the United States.

Forty-years later, civil rights leaders, activists, labor leaders, scholars, the media, social justice advocates, international visitors and presidential hopefuls Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) came back to pay tribute to Dr. King and consider race relations and racial progress.


Thousands visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, marched through the streets, and attended conferences and symposiums. The Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and Rev. Jesse Jackson were among civil rights advocates that made the pilgrimage. Rev. Sharpton’s National Action Network held its convention April 2-5 at the Peabody Hotel and led a recommitment march to the place where Dr. King was killed.

“We are calling for economic justice and a major move in the White House. Therefore, on yesterday I called for the presidential candidates to appoint a cabinet level position if they are commander-in- chief, once and for all to eradicate poverty in America,” said Martin King III, following the April 4 laying of a wreath at the hotel.

“Responding to my request, I’ve just learned, Sens. Clinton, Obama and McCain have pledged that as commander-in-chief, he or she will give the problem of poverty their highest attention.”

The poverty czar would work to uproot poverty and help move more people into the middle class, Martin King III said.

“We’ve been looking back,” said Rev. Sharpton, during an April 3 speech at Mason Temple, the site of Dr. King’s last address. “We need to start committing ourselves to what we’re going to do moving forward,” he said.

Some point to the Black middle class and professionals, the phenomenal success of Sen. Obama, golfer Tiger Woods, billionaire businessman Bob Johnson, media queen Oprah Winfrey and others as proof of progress, but harrowing problems and racial gaps cannot be denied. The dream of equality has not become a reality.

“Some of us look at American society and we see some Blacks doing well, making what we think is progress and wealth and prestige, and we say, ‘We’re moving on up now,’ ” said the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam, in a Holy Day of Atonement message last October. “But is this real? Is it one of the tricks of pharaoh and his messengers? Is it designed to delay our attainment of the true Kingdom of God for his people? In reality, we have the illusion, the trappings of progress, but little else to show for our 452 years in bondage as slaves and now as free slaves in North America.”

The Black economic nightmare

“The Unrealized American Dream,” a report issued by the Institute for Policy Studies, examines trends since the death of Dr. King. It shows increased high school graduation rates and increased college graduation rates.

Yet the report noted, “de facto segregation” in public schools leaves Black students more likely to be stuck in the poorest-performing schools with disproportionately poor, Black classmates. Even with the “advances” it will still take another 79 years for Black college graduation rates to match Whites, the report said.

The education figures may even be worse given that calculations for high school drop out rates for urban areas–as terrible as they are–may be inaccurate. The formulas may underestimate the number of Black youth who simply walk away from high school.

When it comes to poverty, economics, incarceration and health the picture becomes bleaker and signs of “success” diminish.

Four decades after Dr. King called for ending poverty, a third of Black children are still poor, according to The Unrealized American Dream.

“African Americans have made up almost no ground in terms of income disparity with Whites,” said the sobering report. “In terms of per-capita income, African Americans have closed the gap with Whites by only 3 cents on the dollar over the course of four decades. At this rate, it will be over 537 years before income parity is achieved.”

“A quick snapshot of today’s income inequality and continued health and educational disparities suggests that we haven’t come far enough,” said Gerry Hudson, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. In terms of annual median income, Black men earned less than three-quarters of what White men earned ($34,443 vs. $46,807), roughly a $12,000 gap. Black women made 87 percent of what White women made and $5,000 less than Black men ($29,588 a year).

When it comes to actual wealth and not income, the numbers are horrendous. Wealth, defined as savings or home equity, was on average $118,300 for White households versus $11,800 for Black households. The Black and White gulf in financial wealth–stocks, bonds, savings and mutual funds–was $361,100 for Whites versus $300 for Blacks in 2004, the Unrealized American Dream reported.

Census figures show Blacks remain the most segregated racial group in the country.

Often equity-rich, but cash poor Black neighborhoods are under siege from foreclosures because of sub-prime loan schemes that could torpedo gains made through homeownership.

Blacks stand to lose $71 billion and $92 billion in wealth because of targeting for sub-prime loans by financial lending institutions, warned United for a Fair Economy in “Foreclosed: The State of the American Dream 2008.” Black homeownership still lags behind Whites–with Black homeownership at 47.9 percent compared to 75.8 percent. Still, Blacks were three times more likely to get high-priced mortgage loans than Whites as a worsening economic downturn grips America, the report said.

Social problems and questions about progress

The phenomenal rise of Barack Obama, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, is a point of pride.

“Dr. King never witnessed the progress that African Americans and the nation would make as a result of his faith and sacrifice–from the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson to Sen. Barack Obama’s historic presidential run. But as certain as King may have been about his own fate, he was even more convinced that the rest of his prophetic vision–justice, fairness and equality for all Americans–would someday come to pass,” said Earl G. Graves Sr., founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine.

Harry Belafonte, who hosted a Memphis gathering that focused on Black and Latino relations and combating gang violence, agreed that Mr. Obama’s success was noteworthy. “I see in him hope. I see in him promise. But I’m no fool. The enemy does not sleep, and the enemy comes at you from places you least expect,” he said, according to a Memphis newspaper. Mr. Belafonte, a staunch supporter of Dr. King, shared his experiences with the civil rights leader and the truth of the troubling final days the Nobel Prize winner endured, said Bro. Anthony Muhammad, student minister at Muhammad Mosque No. 55 in Memphis.

Speaking at a packed April 5 town hall meeting at Rhodes College, Mr. Belafonte and actor Danny Glover urged young people to step forward to push for change, Bro. Anthony added.

Changes in America are still needed to bring about the vision of justice and equal opportunity espoused by Dr. King. Blacks still suffer disproportionately in the society.

According to the Pew Center on the States report, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” one in every nine Black men ages 18-34 is incarcerated. Other studies show Black men are nearly seven times more likely to be incarcerated. Young Black males between the ages of 15 and 34 are nine times more likely to die of homicide than Whites.

Blacks make up 13 percent of the population, but 50 percent of those diagnosed with HIV and are nearly seven times as likely to suffer from AIDS. About 67 percent of women diagnosed with HIV are Black. Blacks are five times more likely to be murdered than Whites and the murder rate for Black males over 25 is nearly seven times that of White males. The homicide rate for Black females is nearly three times that of White females.

“Forty years later the success of Black America is due directly to the sacrifices and struggles of the civil rights movement and certainly Dr. King embodied that movement. On the other hand, HIV and AIDS, failing public schools, crime, drugs and violence, high drop out rates, high unemployment rates among inner city African American youth, family break ups, and the poverty level, presents another Black America that is frozen in time both politically and economically,” said syndicated columnist and author Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson. He called for “proactive leadership at the national and the local levels” to deal with the “mixed bag” of problems and possibilities.

“Prior to his assassination, Dr. King was hated and often despised by the American government which maintained a strong assault on his character throughout his life. (FBI director J. Edgar) Hoover, leading the mission to destroy him, often fed information to the press intended to arouse suspicions about Dr. King, suspicions which aided the government in attempts to portray him, and his opposition to the war, as treasonous. It was one of many awkward characterizations and forms of hatred that Dr. King would always struggle against,” wrote the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in a commentary.

“Accordingly and in spite of this, Dr. King’s goal was clear and consistently expressed throughout his life of public service. He sought to detoxify our nation, to rid the country of hate, division, and fear along the lines of not only race, but age, gender and all exploitable differences. We can see a progression from the time of his death until today–moving ever closer to the realization of his goal,” Rev. Jackson said.

But this goal is being impeded and delayed by the disunity in the Black community.

“There’s a disconnect and the disconnect is among those who have become middle class, some of whom are faking it that they are making it, and struggling very hard to maintain what they have. But there’s a disconnect between those at the bottom, between the 2.4 million people in prison, most of them Black people. There’s a disconnect even (from) students struggling to stay in school,” he commented Bro. Akbar Muhammad, who spoke during a National Action Network workshop on economics.

“Black leadership today must bridge this gap,” Bro. Akbar said. It takes more than challenging corporations and encouraging youth to work hard as families lose jobs, lose homes and neighborhoods crumble, he said. Politicians have to be connected to people who need help and their constituents need to be shown how to access political leaders to resolve problems, Akbar Muhammad said.

The truth of Dr. King

The weekend was also a time to reflect on Dr. King–the man–and whether the popular mythology of King the “Dreamer” distorted the view of a man vilified for speaking out against the Vietnam War, condemning America as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world and condemned as a traitor for challenging U.S. government misdeeds.

“The same resistance that Dr. King met, he would meet today if he were fighting against the war in Iraq, the inequality in terms of wealth and inequality that exists between Blacks and Whites, as well as many of the other human rights violations that America is committing across the globe,” said Atty. Malik Shabazz, of Black Lawyers for Justice. “We have a tendency to trivialize his legacy through streets, monument and symbolic events rather than sound organizing and policies,” Atty. Shabazz said.

Mr. Belafonte did a magnificent job of sharing the true history of Dr. King and the need for college students to get active, Anthony Muhammad observed.

Dr. King, if alive today, would have been happy over the rise of Sen. Obama because it fulfills an aspect of his aspiration that a person would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character; even though the masses of Black and poor people are going backwards.

At the same time, Dr. King would be saddened by the Iraq War and would be in opposition to it. Dr. King took positions, especially in his opposition to the Vietnam War, that caused preachers to abandon him and the government to target him.

It is an ironic historical dichotomy that 40 years later, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Obama’s former pastor, is in the same spiritual place. As he represented the Black church experience and expressed the pain and hurt and of a suffering people, Rev. Wright’s remarks went too far from the perspective of White America. As Dr. King’s remarks against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in 1967 went too far for Whites. Similar to Dr. King, the retired senior pastor of Trinity United Church of God in Christ in Chicago, was castigated and ostracized for condemning the Iraq War, racial injustice and American hypocrisy.

The use of Rev. Wright’s remarks in a political context was aimed at hurting Sen. Obama, but whoever becomes the next president of the United States has the greatest challenge before him or her, which is to maneuver a nation that is under the judgment of God.

“When you heard Jeremiah Wright, you heard a latter-day Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., April 6 on Meet the Press. Found in Dr. King’s personal effects after he was murdered was a sermon called “Why America May Go to Hell,” said Dr. Dyson. “That’s the Martin Luther King Jr. with which the broad swath of America is not familiar, they don’t understand … a theological tradition that responds to hatred, doesn’t respond in hate, but prophetic anger and then, ultimately, love, love enough to speak justice to the nation,” he said. (Charlene Muhammad contributed to this report.)