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Julianne Malveaux

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Preacher and Prophet

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(NNPA) The swirl around commemorating and celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday always fascinates me. The mainstream media quickly goes to his most famous quote, “I have a dream that one day people will be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” It’s a powerful quote, but equally powerful, and delivered in the same speech, are the words, “We have come to the nation’s capital to cash a check. . . .a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” If people said, “cash the check” as frequently as they say “I have a dream”, we might have a different mindset about the economic status of African American people.

I have claimed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an economist because of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, peace and freedom for their spirits.” Because economists deal with issues of distribution, I have claimed that this is a baseline economic statement that places Dr. King in the economists’ Hall of Fame. Yet, if one reads his speech, the Drum Major Instinct, delivered on February 4, 1968, just 2 months before his death, one would claim him as both a psychologist and prophet as well.

In the Drum Major speech, Dr. King deconstructs human nature, our need to be in front, to keep up with the Joneses’, to claim the best to the detriment of the rest. He scolds sororities and fraternities, even as he acknowledges himself as a fraternity man. He scolds over spenders for the folly they engage in when they use their money to chase material goods for status, instead of chasing meaning. He says the race problem may come out of the drum major instinct, the need for some to feel superior, thereby making others feel inferior. And he says if he will be a drum major for anything, if he will be superior in anything, he will be a drum major for justice.

Hidden inside the drum major speech are a couple of prophetic paragraphs. He says, “There are nations caught up in the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme”. “Our nation must rule the world”. And I am sad to say this nation in which we live is the supreme culprit.” He goes on to say, “God didn’t call America to do what she is doing in the world now. . . We’ve committed more war crimes than almost any nation n the world.. . .And we won’t stop it because of our pride and arrogance as a nation.” He spoke these words in 1968. Do they resonate now?

Prophecy. “God has a way of even putting nations in their place.. . .If you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power. And that can happen to America. Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening. And we have perverted the drum major instinct.”

Dr. King said this in 1968, long before China started kicking the United States in the behind economically. He said this in 1968, long before we fell back in world educational achievement. Once we led the world in the proportion of our population that had either AA or BA degrees. Now we rank 10th, an amazing decline for a nation that claims to lead the world. President Obama would like us to regain our preeminence, and we have the resources, but not the will, to do so. To quote Dr. King, “God has a way of putting nations in their place.”

Yes, we all want to be part of something, that which is popular. That’s the drum major instinct. But, what are we drum majors for? Oppression? False superiority? Or are we, like Dr. King, drum majors for justice?

Given what happened in 1968, Dr. King was spot on in predicting our nation’s denouement. We are in a downward spiral and our direction won’t change until we embrace the concepts of social and economic justice that Dr. King so effectively preached.

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her latest book, Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History, can be obtained from www.lastwordprod.com. The book was recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award.

A Tragedy and My Apology

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(NNPA) My cellphone pinged on Saturday to say I had a message. I was in the middle of lunch and chose to ignore it. When I picked it up a couple of hours later, I felt the same sickness that millions did, learning that Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford was shot in an assassination attempt. Television news bubbled over with the news, with fact, spin, and interpretation. Would all 435 members of Congress need ramped up security? Was hate speech the basis of this shooting? I even saw Neil Boortz, the peripatetic Atlanta lawyer and talk show host suggest that President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama had been guilty of some of the same hate speech that the right has been accused of. Please.

The talk about hate speech, however, is important and I’m going to own my part of it, and apologize. A bazillion years ago (actually in 1992) I made a wisecrack about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Anyone who knows me would see it as a wisecrack, but those who don’t saw it as hate speech. Here’s the background. Thomas said he would live to be 120 to stay on the court to frustrate liberals. I replied that the average Black man had a life expectancy of about 65, and that if his wife fed him lots of butter and eggs (if her recent call to Anita Hill is any indication she isn’t cooking much these days), ingredients for high cholesterol and heart trouble, he’d die an early death. Conservatives called it a death wish. Death by breakfast, I responded, still in jest. As if someone were standing over Thomas with an Uzi forcing him to eat that butter and eggs. The wisecrack has to be taken even less seriously if Justice Thomas’ purported commitment to physical fitness and working out is taken into consideration.

No matter, and no excuses. My comment about Thomas, my wisecrack, was in poor taste. Out of line. Out of order. I am sorry if the words I spoke at all contributed to the climate in which we live, to the vitriol that has poisoned the atmosphere. My apology does not mitigate or reduce my contempt for Clarence Thomas and for his arrogant dismissal of liberals and for the African American community. If I could do it all over, I’d have wished him the bacon and eggs, or simply made reference to the Black male life expectancy rate and his own hubris, but left out the comment about his early death. The fact is that none of us should joke about death. It just isn’t funny.

To be sure, the right has had a great time distorting my words, and they’ve disseminated them widely. And, anytime a liberal makes an inappropriate comment they take their media machine and work it overtime. These conservatives invoke free speech when pastors pray for President Obama’s death from their pulpits (if it were any other president, that pastor might have been looking the FBI in the face). These same conservatives say they aren’t racist when they use images of apes to describe the First Family. These conservatives have both fingerprints and footprints in the poisoned language that poses as free speech. Yet it is true that it takes sticks and twigs, not just logs and trees, to build a fire. Was my comment one of the twigs?

It has taken me nearly two decades and an attempted assassination to understand the damage that my wisecrack might have caused, not to Justice Thomas, but to the public discourse. I hope it won’t take our nation two more decades to understand and embrace the notion of speech civility, even for, no, especially for, political opponents. Every day, and in every way, I tell my students, faculty, and staff that I value civility. Yet, my comment about Clarence Thomas was not only uncivil, it was ugly and unnecessary. And, it really wasn’t that funny. I regret it. I apologize for it. I wish I could take it back.

A dynamic young Congresswoman is fighting for her life, and I am among those who will fall to my knees in prayer for her each day. The assassin who shot her also took out a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl, a Congressional aide, and others. A dozen more were wounded. Scores of lives will never be the same. Even as we pray for Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, we need to fight to restrict easy access to guns. And, we all need to be reminded to tone it down.

Julianne Malveaux is the 15th President of Bennett College for Women. Her most recent book, Surviving and Thriving, 365 Facts in Black Economic History, can be purchased at www.lastwordprod.com.

Surviving, Thriving, and Holiday Kwanzaa

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(NNPA) When I look at the data that define the reality for African Americans in the economy, I am often alarmed and discouraged. One in four African American lives in poverty. Nearly one in three is out of work, according to unofficial data (official data says one in six). African Americans have lost billions of dollars worth of wealth in the foreclosure crisis. We aren’t alone in our pain – our nation is hurting. But, our pain is more pronounced, more acute, more debilitating.

This is hardly the first time African Americans have experienced disproportionate pain. Indeed, the story of our presence in this nation has been a story of us shouldering more than our share of economic pain. When people ask me about the wealth gap, I remind them that Black folks used to be the wealth White folks accumulated. Under those circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that the wealth gap will ever be closed.

And yet we rise. I wrote my latest book, Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History, to remind me, to remind all of us, that even in harsh times African Americans have been more than survivors, we have been thrivers. We have made it despite horrible conditions, despite unfairness, despite racism. The playing field has never been level, and yet we have played on the slanted field, returning, returning, and sometimes winning. In the middle of a week of running around, talking about the book in Detroit and in Chicago, I had to smile at myself with air of satisfaction and acknowledge a job well done.

Madame C.J. Walker is on the book’s cover, and everyone knows about this first self-made woman millionaire in the United States, but few know of Maggie Lena Walker, the woman who started the Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia. Californians are often familiar with Mary Ellen Pleasant (known as “Mammy Pleasant”) who was a millionaire who gained stock tips by working in White people’s kitchens. William Liedesdorff was the first treasurer of San Francisco. He was a man of African descent.

The most powerful acts of economic history, acts at our foundation, were those African Americans who bought their own freedom. I can’t ever even begin to utter those words, or write them, without feeling a bit of nausea at the contradiction implicit in buying one’s own freedom, and yet it happened. We bought ourselves, so committed to freedom that we were willing to cut a deal with massa, with those who believed us somehow less than human. We cut deals despite the fact that the Dred Scott decision said that blacks had no rights whites were bound to respect. We were smart enough to cut deals, and we could have run away, but we stayed and paid unscrupulous masters for a freedom that our very humanity had already earned for us. We bought ourselves. Purchased ourselves. And in the case of some, like Free Frank McWhorter, purchased our relatives, too. In the case of John Parker, of Cincinnati, not only freed ourselves but also walked up on plantations and, despite a price on our head, freed others. History books don’t talk about self-emancipation, but they should. I wrote my book because everyone needs to know about self-emancipation, about the will and the tenacity of people of African descent.

This book is not just a book about entrepreneurs, but about others that influenced economic history, those who protested segregation, those “firsts” like Federal Reserve Governor Andrew Brimmer, who influenced public policy, the women who were “firsts” in earning academic degrees in economics, Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, and Dr. Phyllis Ann Wallace, with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, respectively. This is also the story of the results of economic envy, shameful facts in our economic history, but essential ones nonetheless. The destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the destruction of a vital Black community in Rosewood, Florida, and the demolition of Black life in Wilmington, North Carolina have had an impact on contemporary Black life.

And so we need Kwanzaa now more than ever. We need the principle of Ujamaa – cooperative economics. The statistics tell a grim story about our status, but our history is a compelling reminder that in good times and in bad, African Americans have survived and thrived.

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her book, Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History is available at www.lastwordprod.com.

Some Want Jobs for Christmas

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(NNPA) In the weeks since the “shellacking” of the November 2 election, there has been much talk that the economy will turn around and, indeed, is on the mend. Both pundits and expert economists are saying the economic indicators are better. The recession is over, according to these indicators, and it is unlikely that we have a double dip recession. The stock market has done well this year. So why is the unemployment rate so high?

The November unemployment numbers went up, not down. Now at 9.8 percent we are only two-tenths of a percentage point lower than this time a year ago. No wonder voters rejected Democrats at the polls in November. If there is progress it has come far too slowly, and all Americans are taking it in the pocketbook.

What does 9.8 percent unemployment translate into? It translates into a whole heck of a lot of human misery. It translates into 15.1 million people who want jobs but can’t find them, 6.3 million who haven’t worked for at least half a year. It means that the marginal attachment to the labor force is rising, with 2.5 million now part of that group. It means that the traditionally reported black unemployment rate is now 16 percent, 16.7 percent for African American men, and 13.1 percent for African American women. And Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says we might have to live with unemployment rates this high for another few years, and that unemployment rates might not return to the “normal” 5 or 6 percent until 2015.

Of course, the 9.8 percent that is reported totally understates the reality of the situation. Including discouraged workers and others, the unemployment rate is closer to 16.3 percent and thus closer to 30 percent for African Americans. The enormity of this problem in the African American community is staggering and gives one the sense that the Senate and Congress are fiddling, figuratively as Rome burns and much less figuratively, in the African American community.

Extending unemployment benefits has become a political football. And there has been little attention focused on the possibility of job creation. If Bernanke is saying that we can expect to live with high unemployment rates for quite some time, then it is irresponsible for Congress to ignore joblessness because they want to balance budgets. Meanwhile, many are gearing up to celebrate the season, while others simply want to work, but the jobs aren’t there. To be sure, there will be a few new jobs this month in the retail sector as retailers desperately attempt to stimulate consumer sales. “Black Friday”, the traditional big day for shopping seems to have gone over with a thud, there will be new data out in mid December. So far, preliminary data say that Black Friday sales were up by about 2 percent, but prices have been dropped so significantly that profits have been hurt. But profits haven’t been as hurt as employment. People are hurting, and they aren’t getting the results they need from those policy makers who could alleviate their pain.

There will be people caroling and crooning through the New Year, celebrating the joy of a season that must be celebrated. We manage our lives around these rituals, these mysteries of faith, this time of the year when life grinds to a halt and we recognize humanity, human values, the birth of the Christ child, and the coming of winter solstice. And yet, while some croon, others will struggle to celebrate, scraping pennies together to come up with some semblance of celebration because they have children so barraged by commercialism that they equate the end of the year with gifts and goodies.

So on one hand we have people pricing what the 12 days of Christmas would cost today and others are poring through the pricey Neiman Marcus catalog; some folks just want jobs for Christmas. Maybe this Congress will manage things so that more than a few are granted their wish.

And Yet Love Exists

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(NNPA) Dr. Maya Angelou is a gracious, wise, and witty woman who has been an absolute treasure to our nation and our world. I just learned that she will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving. Of all the things that Dr. Angelou has accomplished, I am most impressed by her ability to radiate optimism even in pessimistic times and to teach about “the courage to love”. I am fortunate to have her as an advisor, sister, friend and board member at Bennett College for Women. So often, I have had the blessing of sitting at her feet and receiving phenomenal words of advice and guidance. My dear friend, Robby Gregg, shared a thanksgiving message from Dr. Angelou that motivates this column:

"I'm grateful for being here, for being able to think, for being able to see,
For being able to taste, for appreciating love - for knowing that it exists in a
world so rife with vulgarity, with brutality and violence, and yet love exists.
I'm grateful to know that it exists."

I savored Dr. Angelou’s words on the Sunday before Thanksgiving as I despaired over the Tea Party nonsense and the “vulgarity, brutality, and violence” that too frequently define our world. I was mourning the fact that four young women who were pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. at East Carolina University were in a horrible car accident, with two dying and two holding on to life. The girls were 19 and 20 years old, the accident a one-car accident, the tragedy monumental, the mourning extreme. And even in mourning death, I am reminded by Dr. Maya to give thanks for life and for its ebbs and flows.

Even as I fight with life (what’s the point) and its extreme and profound unfairness, I also savor the spirit of gratitude that rests on my shoulders like a stole and makes it possible for me to manage the rage I often feel at life’s unfairness. I had a morning one day last week that made me utterly unfit for human company, and then I traveled to New York to greet more than 50 folks who came out for a book signing at the wonderfully warm Hue Man bookstore in Harlem. In my mind I asked the woman who was smiling in the evening to say a few words to the woman who was scowling in the morning, and I gave thanks.

Despite the drubbing Democrats took in the mid-term elections and the obvious obstruction Republicans plan in this next Congress, I remain grateful for leaders like President Barack Obama, now-Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn. I’m not so grateful for Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, but I am sure that I’ll get over it. I just can’t figure out how this man thought he should have Clyburn’s slot as Whip, and how Clyburn let him have it.

I suppose I am grateful for the likes of Rush Limbaugh whose racism (he had a series of extremely unflattering things to say about Clyburn) is galling. I am grateful for Limbaugh and Beck because they are poster children for ignorance, the kind of people you want to point to as examples of what not to be. They are the wind beneath Sarah Palin’s wings, and Mrs. Palin, for all her newfound influence (enough to get the talented Brandy ejected from Dancing with the Stars in favor of the clumsy Bristol), is not an example of much more than opportunism.

And yet love exists, says Dr. Maya. It does. It exists as tens of thousands of Americans devote at least part of their thanksgiving to feeding those who will not eat. It exists as people choose to spend part of their holiday time asking for change for the Salvation Army, and as even more people offer money to help others. It exists as people bring canned goods and wrapped toys to the charities that have promised to help families whose Christmas seasons might otherwise not be so bright. Would that it would exist for Haiti, where promised dollars still have not reached that beleaguered country. Love exists.

I am indebted to Dr. Maya for her Thanksgiving sentiments, to Robby Gregg for sharing them, to the Creator for grace and gratitude and for the love that exists.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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