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Thoughts: After the 50th Anniversary

By Ron Markoe

My wife really wanted to attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream speech.” However, after attending the 50th anniversary march in Detroit, and numerous other marches in DC, I resisted this time, opting instead to stay home and watch it on television. Perhaps, I sensed what the take-away would be. Many notable speakers offered inspiring oratory. Of course, the focus was on injustices to Black people and the need for political change. The main themes were voting rights, state laws like “stand your ground,” local laws like “stop-and-frisk” and the whole question of jobs and union-busting. Homage was paid to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his enduring ideals.

But, I can’t help but to wonder if this event will truly make a difference, and whether or not the focus should have been different.  What will Black people be inspired to do? Are we merely caught up in the moment of the march? Were the right white people listening and will they posture themselves to adequately address the concerns that were expressed during the march? Or, did the rhetoric fall on deaf ears? Are the powers that be, also weary of Black marches? When you witness the intransigence in our Congress on the part of the Republican Party to pass any meaningful legislation, and when you see our constitutional rights taken away locally, you have to come to the conclusion that we are in this fight alone.

No doubt, things have gotten better in the country since the March in 1963. Against all odds, we have elected a Black president. Many people have attained heights that in 1963 were unimaginable. However, many more Black people are suffering, unemployed, uneducated, incarcerated, victims of crime, homeless, drug dependent and without hope. In many ways, we’ve taken a step forward and two steps back, all the while hearing many whites proclaim that we have reached a color-blind society. I suspect in actuality, we are a long ways from reaching that lofty goal. So, now what? How do we move forward with so many obstacles in our way? Should the next march be different? Should we even march anymore? NAACP President Ben Jealous admits that the movement is more financially strapped now, and the problem is exacerbated by the declining strength of organized labor.

In the spirit of that old saying, “you cannot control the things that happen to you, you can only control your reaction to them,” I would like to pose the following question.  If miraculously, you (as a Black person) had the single choice of changing white people’s attitudes, or Black people’s attitudes, which would you change? I know this sounds hokey. But imagine a Black society where we simply decided to be civil to one another. Imagine little or no street crime. Imagine schools with no student behavioral problems, creating an environment more conducive to learning and achievement. As a parent with two children that graduated from DPS, I know this problem all too well. Teachers must spend an inordinate amount of valuable classroom time devoted to disciplining the students, which stunts many children’s learning potential, either through lost time or peer group pressure to assimilate. With dedicated student learning, you would witness the fulfillment of goals, which would result in more career and entrepreneurial opportunities, and the ability to earn a living wage, assume leadership positions, and make lasting contributions to the community.

Normally, children that do well in school and are optimistic about their future do not commit crimes. Civility would also mean respect for your neighbors, respect for the senior citizens that led the way, respect for the opposite sex and the sanctity of the Black family, respect for private property, and the lives of others. But most importantly, it would mean self-respect. Over time, property values in the community would rise. Business growth and development would occur without the high costs of crime. Jobs would be created. Revenue would be generated in the city. Poverty and homelessness would decline. A decreased dependence on external forces to solve our problems would come about. A peaceful and stable environment would be created by our own initiative, based on a personal decision. This would be a march that could be conducted every day, without any cost.

This may sound to many people like simplistic, pie-in-the-sky, wishful thinking, but once upon a time we had the proverbial village in Detroit. Crime was not nearly as bad. Black people were kinder and far less violent toward each other.  Detroit Public Schools graduated successful students in abundance. Children respected their elders. Families were intact. Neighbors would lovingly reprimand other people’s children if necessary. Private property was respected. A strong work ethic was instilled in all of us during that period. Poverty was not a justification for murder. Being a welfare recipient was frowned upon. People lived in relative peace and — believe it or not — there were a significant amount of Black-owned businesses.

This is what I witnessed as a child growing up in the 50s and 60s in Detroit. No, it was not a perfect time — far from it. But, there was a significant amount of civility that solidified us — a community — in spite of the segregation and discrimination that confronted Black people. We may have thought that things were less than perfect then, but they are worse now. Many people are afraid to leave their homes after dark, carjackings are now commonplace, and we are becoming desensitized when hearing about the latest murders.

The causes and solutions for what happened to us as a people are subjects that can be debated ad nauseam. The problems are complex and far reaching, but it is now up to us to correct things.  This does not exempt white controlled institutions from their responsibility to be just and even handed when dealing with everyone. The fight to address injustice must continue to be waged. It’s just that we have a greater, god-given power that lies within each of us that we can choose to exercise or not in all of our daily actions and interactions that has the potential to be more impactful on our overall quality of life. Do we love and respect ourselves and others or not? A magic wand that we could wave to change attitudes would be a wonderful solution. I’m hoping that we don’t need it. But, if I do find it, I would wave it over my people. Martin Luther King Jr. told us: “we must all learn to live together as brothers, or we shall perish together as fools.”

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