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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Finishing King's Fight: Re- Igniting "The Poor People's Campaign" And The War On Poverty by Anthony Asadullah Samad

Last week I wrote a commentary on the problems Black's can't escape. The problems were largely socio-political in scope, some self-perpetuating, while others were perpetuated by the historical disparities.

The inference that the problems of Black America were incalculable and inescapable was not lost on many of you (who responded in-kind through a bombardment of e-mails) that we can't give up hope. While I appreciate the response (good to know folk are readin') you missed the point of the commentary.

The point of the commentary was to contextualize the dilemmas facing Black America and the multiplier effect that compounded social problems have created. Hope without action is, like faith without works, dead. We have to do more than HOPE things change. It's time for us all to act.

I purposely excluded economics in last week's social critique. The poverty discussion needs it own forum. Racism in America has always been economic. Race, economics and circumstance, for Black America, are intertwined.

No matter the income class, education or occupational lot in life. The interconnectedness of the so-called "blessed of us" to the "least of us" is such that none of us can afford to continue to ignore the problems our people face. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that we were "inextricably connected" to our brothers smothering in the air-tight vault of poverty.

King also recognized that there was no rational justification for such deep seeded poverty in America. King criticized America as wanting to fund foreign wars more than it wanted to fund domestic dignity. He planned to have a "Poor People's Campaign" to raise America's conscience on the question of poverty. He went to Memphis' to show solidarity for striking sanitation workers-more to put a face on poverty and to give dignity to the cause of impoverished workers.

King lost his life in this campaign, and the Poor People's campaign failed in the face of both national recalcitrance and political indifference. Race, economics and circumstance was a factor then, and it's a factor now. King tried to make America face up to economic injustice then. We must make America face up to economic injustice now. We must re-engage a Poor People campaign in this country, to bring attention to growing effects of poverty.

Poverty is something urban communities will not escape through passive engagement. "Tokenism" (passive investment in urban communities, small donations to community organizations, marginal social welfare policies) will not cure poverty. Detroit, Southside Chicago, South Los Angeles look the same as they did forty years ago. In some cases, they look worse than they did forty years ago. The alternative has been to try to attain "favorite Negro status" and escape the realities of impoverishment. "Escapism" has been the solution for many Blacks who simply try to earn enough money to separate themselves from the madness of crime-which is a residual effect of socio-economic disparities. What African Americans have realized in the thirty-nine years since King's murder is that they can't escape poverty.

Even the more affluent Blacks can't escape the despair of poverty. Not as long as long you have one family member or friend impacted by the grips of poverty. How many people do you know that live in "the hills," but have to go back to "the flats" to visit "their people?" How many people do we know that moved to the Westside, but have to "go home" to visit "Mama" on the eastside or southside-not because you don't have the means to move her but because she doesn't want to move? For many of our seniors, it's the only neighborhood they've ever known and they're not leaving their homes, no matter how much the "hood" has changed. How many of us have passed through Skid Row and seen somebody they knew (well) and thought that was the last person you'd see down there because "back in the day," the person "had it goin' on?" But circumstances change, and life changes-and what was once up is now down. It's earthshaking and nerve shattering to know that "if not for the Grace of God, that could be…" Individuals can escape poverty.

Communities hardly ever do, unless they're gentrified-in which case, the impoverished are just moved somewhere else while the rich take over strategic locales (which urban spaces are becoming increasingly more gentrified and valuable).

The last forty years have proved that low income people just can't work their way out of poverty. They have to hit the lotto or find minerals rights in their backyards. Wages have been suppressed as high wage manufacturing jobs were replaced by low wage service jobs. The fastest growing segment of the poverty and welfare populations are people who get up and go to work everyday and still can't make ends meet, the "working poor." The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angles and SEIU Local 6434b launched a National Poor People's Campaign this week that we hope will spread across the nation. It was announced on the same day a rally was being held in support of a security officers' march for increased wages and improvement in work conditions so the officers can have jobs with dignity. The modern day example, of why we need a Poor People's Campaign, is the plight of security officers in Los Angeles (really, security officers anywhere). Here are people, seeking dignity through work, hired at minimum (or just above minimum) wage, to protect assets in our communities-most times without a gun or sufficient back-up-representing the first point of contact in dangerous situations but never earning the respect (numerous "toy cop" jokes) or the money they deserve to provide for and protect their families. In Los Angeles, Blacks are nine percent of the population and over 70% of the security guard workers. Race, economics and circumstance is a big factor here. It's the Memphis Sanitation Workers dilemma all over again. Black workers are good enough to protect business interests all over the city, but not good enough to earn livable wages and live with dignity.

This is just one industry where wage suppression impacts the quality of one's life. None of us can escape the realities of the poor-no matter how much we try. And poverty will never just "go away" for as long as much of society tries to ignore it.
Black America can restore America's social conscience by addressing poverty. Poverty is not just a "black problem." It is a class problem, a poor people's problem, that disproportionately affects Blacks. This is one problem we can address. Those who "invoke King" every fifteen minutes, those who want to fight a war, those who say Blacks need a focused cause to re-engage the civil rights movement, here it is.

Support the Poor People's Campaign in your area, to eradicate poverty-King's last fight.

Anthony Asadullah Samad is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom. He can be reached at

Anthony Asadullah Samad

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

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