WASHINGTON – Some people need to have a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A half century ago, he made his great speech here about discrimination and freedom and jobs and character and even about God.
President John F. Kennedy and the all-white male power structure didn’t want King to make any speech or lead a march. King lived only another five years. But he saw passage of the brace of civil rights laws that helped unwind centuries of slavery and Jim Crow.
King would have been thrilled to see his friend Thurgood Marshall elevated to the Supreme Court, probably even Clarence Thomas; and watching 58 black men and women elected to this House of Representatives from the Old Confederacy.
One of them, Democrat Bennie Thompson, lives close to Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers’ murders were chronicled in the film “Mississippi Burning,” and where presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980 made his infamous speech about restoring “states rights,” signaling plans for a South run by white folk.
Part of King’s message of the 1960s is that one needs to reform himself. Back then, a disciple, Jesse Jackson Sr., said you had “to take the slum out of the man as well as take the man out of the slum.”
King, of course, would have been proud to see Barack Obama as president, Eric Holder as attorney general and John B. King Jr. as state education commissioner.
Commissioner King won degrees in education and law from Yale, Harvard and Columbia. His father was the first black school principal in Brooklyn. The commissioner has worked his way up the ladder, running charter schools and school systems.
The education commissioner, who is justifiably fed up with the collapsing Buffalo Public Schools, called the city’s new black school superintendent, Pamela C. Brown, to a showdown in Albany that was scheduled for last Thursday.
It is more than a symbol of Rev. King’s lost message that Brown stiffed the commissioner in order to sit through a meeting with President Obama during his visit to Buffalo. What would the civil rights leader have said to Brown about her responsibilities to the children?
What is the lesson to the community? On such occasions turn a culture. These days, no blacks of my acquaintance want to talk for the record about Buffalo’s schools, much less about the killings in black Chicago, or the corruption in Detroit that led to its bankruptcy. Silence.
Another leader, who stood with Rev. King at the Lincoln Memorial, is worried. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., then chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, said the other day:
“I’m deeply concerned that the present generation failed to grasp what happened. That’s why I feel that it is so important for young people – and people not so young – to know there’s a role for them to play. I have a feeling that people are just too quiet.”
One issue they should make noise about was the massive withdrawal of federal money from the central cities under Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush and, yes, Bill Clinton.
New York State alone lost billions a year in general revenue sharing, and direct grants for neighborhood development, job training, housing and community policing. The money was squandered on wars and tax cuts for the wealthy.
What would Rev. King say to Obama about his opportunity to turn things around for the millions of young black Americans who have been left behind? Obama had the right idea. One his first acts after winning the 2008 election was to create an Urban Affairs Office. Very little has come out of it.