WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
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.