Stucknation: Cashing Dr. King's Promissory Note

Sunday, January 16, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Ridgewood, NJ—It was Palm Sunday in 1968,  just 72 hours after Dr. King had been murdered. My parents thought it was important that I go with my father to attend an impromptu eccumenical service at the Mount Bethel Baptist Church at the center of the African American section of Ridgewood. 

Even though I was just 12, it was one of those formative moments that helped convince me that I had, even as a pre-teen, some social obligation to a sphere that extended beyond my family. What we all did mattered. The world would become only what we made of it.

When we arrived there was a massive multiracial crowd that the local Ridgewood News put at 2,000. We could not get inside and so I looked up at the front of the church as I listened to eulogies and impassioned sermons. The call to action over the loudspeakers felt taller than the church's towering brick facade.

The neighborhood may have been more familiar to me than most. Just a few years earlier, my family had moved from a rental just a few blocks away from the church. My old corner marked the color line that defined, and locals say still does, the black and white sections of the Village.

By April of 1968, I already had practice with how to publicly grieve. Just five years earlier, as an eight year-old, oldest of a large Irish Catholic family, I remember vividly how my parents suffered the emotional hole after John Kennedy's assasination.

On that Palm Sunday, according to the Ridgewood News of April 11, 1968, the crowd heard the pastor of Mount Bethel, Reverend James Howell, deliver the most powerful oratory of the day. "Eighty percent of you are wealthy, indifferent individuals, and it is to you I appeal. You are the ones who welcome the black boy from Africa into your homes and arms, but what about the black boy from Mississippi?"

In the decades since, Ridgewood's complexion is still overwhelmingly white — 82 percent. Less than a single percent are African American. The balance are either Latino or Asian, many multinational transfers attracted by the quality of the Ridgewood Schools. By contrast, the 1970 Census documented that 2 percent of the population was black.

Today, New Jersey's public schools remain the 5th most segrgated in the nation, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Governor Chris Christie says some 100,000 are attending 200 urban schools that are failing them, and most of those are students of color. 

Just a week before his death, Dr. King had toured Northern New Jersey speaking at churches in Newark. Jersey City and nearby Paterson. He was hoping to inspire support for his "Poor People's Campaign." 

By the spring of 1968, King's rhetoric had transcended race and moved into the even more provocative question of America's indifference to the poverty of millions of its people of all races and its waging the war in Vietnam. He was making connections that made people uncomfortable and challenged the established order. That's the King Alice Newton wants people to remember. She is a Ridgwood resident and organizer of the town's 29th annual Dr. King commemoration.

"People forget how controversial he was," says Newton. "He has been made a more polite politician than he was. He really was a revolutionary."

This year, the event's keynote speaker is Yvonne Smith Segars, a Ridgewood resident and New Jersey's Public Defender who oversees a staff of 500 that provide a wide array of legal services and defense for the growing number of residents who can't afford legal representation.

"You have a duty and obligation to be a steward in your community and be ready to act when you see injustice or inequity," said an impassioned Segars. And most importantly, she added that sense of obligation cannot just be for adults."Our children need to feel uncomfortable when they observe injustice, not laugh or join in," says Segars.

In his pivotal "I Have A Dream" speech Dr. King said that "in the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence" was "a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir." He wanted to uplift the poor and he reminded America "of the fierce urgency of now."

And so where are we now, more than 40 years later, in redeeming that promissory note?

Today real unemployment is well into the low double digits. In communities of color, it is even higher. Millions of Americans face the prospect of foreclosure. One in six have to turn to Medicaid, the government insurance plan for the poor. One in five American children live in poverty.

According to economists Thomas Kety and Emmanuel Saez, as late as 1969, the bottom 90 percent of the nation's income earners had a relatively robust 65 percent share of the national income. By 2007 that bottom 90 percent of Americans were claiming just 12 percent. In 1970, the top ten CEOs earned 49 times the average worker's wage. By 2000, it was 2,173 to one.

So ironically, our first African American President is now presiding over a nation with the greatest disparity in wealth since the 1920s. 

More than 40 years after Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech challenged the nation, that American "promissory note" remains an IOU for millions of Americans.


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Comments [3]

Catherine Hyland and Richard Bruno from UWS

Dear Bob Henley,
While this is a shamefully delayed thank you note for your outstanding work day by day....your MLK Day Stucknation is the context we've chosen to write to you. You draw our attention to the most important part of Dr. King's work-his protest of our nation's egregious economic equality-and you remind us that our country has failed, lost major ground in establishing economic justice for all since Dr. King's death. The national debate avoids this central reality; thank you for keeping us focused.
Your careful, reasoned and relentless work uncovering and reporting truth in the face of irrationality and/or deceit (and not exclusively within the precincts of power) - this is the work you take on for us in the tri-state area. You're a regional and national treasure. Our family here on the UWS (by way of Irish and Italian working class segregated 50s/60s Brooklyn neighborhoods) salutes your service for the commonweal, Bob Henley.
C & R

Jan. 18 2011 12:45 PM
Steve S. from Manhattan


Thank you so much for sharing your memories of 1968--and for highlighting the extraordinarily terrible economic inequity that now exists in the United States (something the Dr. King would surely be addressing if he were still with us).

It is outrageous how this is rarely a component of political discourse amongst our politicians and mainstream political pundits (with a few exceptions like Bob Herbert, Eugene Robinson, Paul Krugman), even though its effects are having an incredibly detrimental impact on our economy, millions of American families, and our nation's soul.

The free market is not going to solve our country's ills--companies exist to make money and figure out ways to make even more down the line (and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as their interests are balanced against the interests of society). We need a WPA-type program to put people back to work and rebuild our nation's infrastructure (and maybe even create a world-class, high-speed rail system); to strengthen unions and expand their membership (to guarantee decent wages, worker's rights, and pensions); and finally expand to Medicare to include every American (health care is a basic human right--and the current system just isn't working if leaves millions uninsured). The race to the bottom (where we blame everything on teachers' unions and government workers for having decent benefits out of resentment/jealousy, when we should be demanding that the private sector provide living wages and pension plans for the rest of us) is ugly, selfish, and un-American.

And we need to make sure that corporations and the rich are paying their fair share of taxes--they have profited greatly over the past several decades from big tax breaks, government handouts, etc. Paying one's taxes should be seen as a patriotic duty, whether you are an individual or a corporation.

The American dream should not be about individuals achieving vast wealth (and fame), but ensuring that every American is able to lead a decent, healthy, dignified, and fulfilling life...

Jan. 18 2011 12:12 PM
NABNYC from SoCal

When our country finally admitted that we have a terrible legacy of injustice and racism towards black Americans, that they have been systematically and institutionally denied opportunity at all levels in our country, there was a tiny moment when we considered the possible remedies for that long history of injustice. But then the right-wing came along with the bizarre claim that any remedy would be "racist," and unconstitutional. If we, for example, adopt affirmative action programs to get more black kids through college, through professional schools, hired into good fields and given the training and opportunity to advance, then such efforts are inherently racist and unconstitutional because they are addressed to black Americans. This entire concept is nonsense, but the right-wing just loved the idea that we can be found guilty, but nobody can do a thing about it. It's a new concept in American justice, the idea that people can be guilty as hell, but nobody can hold them responsible for their actions. It's the same premise on which politicians today solicit and accept bribes and sell their votes. They say Well, the Supreme Court says it's okay, so there's nothing you (the citizens) can do to stop us. It's truly a foundational rot. It may have started as a clever tactic to keep black people oppressed, but it's now been expanded to oppress the majority of people in this country. Yes, you've proven the wrongdoing that occurs at an institutional level, but no remedy is available. It's an idiotic ideology and, of course, is embraced by the right-wing.

Jan. 17 2011 01:39 PM

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