by Calvin Taylor, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
As Memphis and the Mid-South prepares to commemorate one of the darkest days in history, I am reminded of the many activities surrounding the 1968 Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of a young black college student and his companions who happened to be members of a group of young activists known as the Invaders.
The Invaders were a group of young kids in both high school and college that became the student component of a larger citywide effort known as The Black Organizing Project. The Invaders were founded by Charles Cabbage, a graduate of Morehouse College; Coby Smith, a Southwestern College graduate (now known as Rhodes College); and John Smith, a veteran of the Vietnam.
I point out their credentials to emphasize that the leadership and makeup of the group for the most part were college educated or degreed youth who were as concerned about the plight of black people in America and Memphis as were the recognized clerical and political leaders in the black community.
The Invaders were not unlike any other young college-educated group in the late 60s. They absorbed the writings and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Richard Ellis, Mao Tse-tung, Ghandi, Frantz Fanon, Sam Greenlee, Lorraine Hansberry, Dick Gregory, James Forman and others, which helped to guide their actions and efforts. Also like many other like groups, The Invaders did partake in smoking marijuana, however, they were never charged with possession or drug-trafficking offenses.
Quite the contrary, they attempted to establish reading programs, writing seminars, breakfast programs and health examination programs within the communities where they were needed most. Because of their youth and outspokenness, they were dubbed a “militant” group by the white press. With that moniker following them, they were often shunned and ostracized as they sought to be recognized by other civic groups within the Memphis community such as the NAACP, the Community on the Move for Equality, faith-based institutions and other similar alliances supporting the efforts of the striking sanitation workers.
The major issues at that time as well as today were housing, education, employment and healthcare. As I sit during this time 50 years later, I am forced to ask the question, “Are we (black people) any better off today as a people? How much further do we have to go to receive equal and fair treatment? And finally, where do we go from here? Better yet, what kind of leadership is needed to move us forward?”
Facing the issues of the past
Again, the major issues facing black people in 1968 are the same as today, with the addition of two new issues that directly affects the lives of black people: black-on-black crime and the high rates of incarceration. With those issues being added, one can safely say that the socioeconomic status of black Memphians is no better today that it was 50 years ago.
We have made significant gains in electing public officials and have had a few black Memphians climb the corporate ladder, but we still remain the least of the population to reap the benefits while we are the economic spending engine of the city.
Today in Memphis, blacks, according to a recent study by Harrison Campbell at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, have experienced lower rates of income growth and lower appreciation of property values than white Memphians.
Social mobility characterizes most great cities. Among the 50 largest metro areas, Memphis is last in social mobility. This simply means that most, if not all, of the children born in poverty will remain there. This is the kicker, a child born into the bottom fifth income bracket in the Memphis area has only a 2.6 percent chance of rising to the top fifth in income.
“To lift 10 percent of residents just above the poverty line means closing the income gap of $171 million, or $2,703 per person per year. The federal poverty level is $23,550 annually for a family of four,” wrote Wendi Thomas, former columnist for The Commercial Appeal.
These are not just numbers on a page, they are actual verified outcomes of policies and practices that give rise to the systemic racial inequality prevalent in Memphis and indeed America today. These same policies and practices are receiving a substantial amount of support from a present-day federal governing administration that is turning back every substantial gain achieved by blacks in this country within the past 50 years.
I might add that recently the Economic Policy Institute published a report stating that, “in 50 years since the federal government made the decision to document segregation, poverty and racism in America, identified half a century ago, are still with us today and indeed some have gotten worse.”
The report, “Memphis 50 Years since King: The Unfinished Agenda,” states that the Memphis employment picture is different and much more complex from the community as a whole. While it is clear that blacks have entered every occupation in substantial numbers, the regional economy is clearly rigged against affluence for all.
First, employment has stagnated since the Great Recession. Second, unemployment in the region is skewed towards occupations that do not require as much training and education. Finally, the income disparity between the small numbers of high-income jobs ($60,000 to $100,000 annually) and the large mass of low-income jobs ($30,000 to $35,000 annually) skew the economic pictures against the black workers. This is economically, and, if not morally, untenable.
When it comes to education, a recent report states that over 50 percent of black males in Shelby County will not graduate high school. This problem can be directly linked to the 73 percent of single-parent homes in the black community.
Households where the mother raises the children alone reveals that 71 percent of pregnant teenagers lack a father in the home; 83 percent of children that live in single-parent households are living in poverty; 71 percent of high school dropouts live in single-parent homes and 70 percent of incarcerated juveniles and 85 percent of men in prison come from single-parent households.
Seventy-three percent of the households in Memphis will send children to Shelby County Schools that have the obstacles of life stacked against them. Couple this with the fact that, for many, the welfare system (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) was the only means of reliable support. Unfortunately, the welfare system had only one qualifying rule: for a family to receive assistance, there could be no sign of a male presence in the household.
The dismantling of the family unit
This is a cycle that is a direct outgrowth of slavery, a system where a black man was not considered to be a human being but rather a commodity. He was beaten, bought, hung, bartered and/or sold to achieve economic gain – never considered to be part of the black family unit. Subsequently, many men who could not find adequate paying jobs left home for their family’s sake, therefore, women, many of whom would have liked to get married, did not for fear of losing their reliable financial assistance. Today, after systematically dismantling the black family, a predominantly white political system has all but done away with the welfare system.
The PEW Research Center just presented an even more startling example of racial inequality in Memphis: blacks in Memphis are incarcerated at a rate that is four times higher than their white counterparts. No wonder Memphis is ranked as the worst city for single women 25-34 years of age to find an employed man.
For every 100 single women, there are 59 single men. More importantly, the study concludes that it is impossible to draw a correlation between locking more people up and reducing the crime rate. The costs of having one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates ultimately drains money and resources from government budgets that could be much better spent on ensuring a quality education and improving the quality of life.
It also takes parents out of homes, neighbors out of neighborhoods and workers out of the workforce. In other words, it produces communities with thousands of foreclosures, vacant lots, higher crime, large numbers of dropouts, a lack of public health facilities, fewer employment opportunities and just plain and simple – fewer opportunities.
King and the Invaders: On the same team
There are other racial statistics about the city of Memphis that could be cited from research studies, but that is not the message that I am trying to convey. My intent is to present a contrast between the dream of Dr. King and the Invaders of 1968 and the issues of today. The outlook today is just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 1968.
The only changes that can be immediately noticed is that Dr. King, as a physical man no longer exists and the Invaders no longer exist as an organization, however, the conditions that brought Dr. King to Memphis and gave rise to a group of college-educated young men to address them does exist and even more so today. Those issues have become increasingly more difficult to discuss in public settings and continue to create the community divide that needs to be mended.
There were two occasions when the Invaders got the opportunity to meet with Dr. King regarding the issues confronting Memphians and the racial divide. The first meeting took place shortly following the March 28 march, which erupted in violence. As three of the Invaders sat and talked with Dr. King regarding his days at Morehouse College and violence versus nonviolence as an approach to tackling the overwhelming racial dilemma facing everyone, the more we found ourselves in agreement.
His idea of approaching the issues from an economic point of view and how the Invaders could assist him was the result of the nearly two-hour long conversation. It marveled this writer at the kind of calm-assuredness, command and conviction of purpose that only Dr. King could have with so many other distractions vying for his attention.
The meeting ended respectfully and cordially with the agreement to meet again with the intention to talk at length about the neighborhood programs that the Invaders were initiating and a seat at the table to be included rather than shunned by the movement. The second meeting, which did not go as calmly because of all the voices vying to be heard, ended somewhat abruptly with no agreements. Hours later, Dr. King was assassinated.
Picking up the pieces of the dream
Looking at where Memphis is today – a city filled with multi-dimensional poverty and the derivatives thereof, it is easy to say that more than Dr. King died on April 4, 1968.
Memphis is a city that has never dealt up-close and personal with the realities of the death of Dr. King. There have been shallow conversations on the ramifications on the city of his death, but no one has ever gone deep into the issue and uncovered the deep, dark, ugly scars and bruises left from April 4, 1968.
The small minority of black people that have managed to succeed took control of their destiny using the tools that Dr. King shared during his nonviolent movement in the 60s.
The majority of the black community should learn from their success to improve their plight today. We can no longer blame anyone else but ourselves for not making things better and improving our economic plight in the community. If the opportunities are not provided, we need to learn to define and implement them.
We need to work together as a community to reduce black-on-black crime and not just when a white person shoots a large number of people senselessly. We need to insist that our children attend school to learn instead of initiating chaos and hindering others from learning.
It is time for us to wake and smell the coffee so that in 2068 there is not another economic disparity study of gloom and doom done on the black community.