On Jan. 19, I will take time from my schedule to participate in some of the many activities in recognition of the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, by the time this column is published, I will have engaged in one of these events. My church, Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, held its annual MLK Luncheon on Saturday, in recognition of King’s contributions to the growth of Black folk specifically, but of Americans as a whole. Salem has a special relationship with this great leader, as he touched the lives of many during his presence in Salem’s pulpit in the past. At this time each year, I devote this column to some aspect of his life. Usually, I reflect on where we were when I was a young man and what has transpired since then. This year, my thoughts are about what could have been.
I fully recognize the efforts of all civil rights leaders, especially King, for what has transpired to make a better life for all Black Americans; that includes employment, education, housing, access to public facilities, voting, and politics. But, in spite of the progress that has been made, there is much more to do. During introspective moments, when I consider where we have been and where we are presently, my thoughts always turn to an Opportunities Industrialization Center, Inc. (OIC) rally in the 1960s when the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, one of King’s close associates, was the guest speaker. Abernathy gave a rousing and inspiring speech, one that had all of us highly motivated; inspired to take on the world. As I exited the meeting, I asked a friend, “What do we do now?” Over the years, I continue to ask this question and fear I will be asking the same question on my deathbed. I do not suggest that things would have been different had King not met his untimely death. But, the apparent pivot he made as he led a march in Memphis in which he turned to issues of poor people in general, not just issues of Black people, gives some inkling of where we might have gone. Perhaps we would have turned a critical corner to move forward in economic growth and advancement. I ask myself over and over at this time of the year, where would King be in improving the economic climate in the lives of Black folk? I doubt he would be running around giving speeches and leading marches against injustices. I believe he would have emphasized economic strategies that would have been powerful and useful tools for change.
When I told a friend that Blacks and economics would be the focus of my King column this year, he smiled and acknowledged that I have been on this kick for many years. In spite of tremendous progress as a race, partly because of King’s efforts, MLK celebrations and activities are stark reminders of how far we still must travel. Some of you will use churches, schools and meeting halls for King programs. But have you considered how pleased King would be if our coming together, for one of these luncheons took place at a restaurant that would take our hard-earned money and whose owners looked like us; an establishment that would surely have brothers and sisters serving the food? As you reflect on this question, include in your thought process the fact that many groups have been engaged in King luncheons and banquets since his death some 45-plus years ago. Would today’s scenario exist with other racial or ethnic groups? I attended a King luncheon sponsored by my church on Saturday. I told my pastor last year that it would be the last time I would go to a white establishment and participate in a program honoring King . Yet this year I found myself in another white establishment celebrating his life. Hopefully, next year will be different. With commitment, we can make it different. Call it racist if you care to; my position is that such thinking is simply being racial, something that all Black Americans should consider in all aspects of their existence.
Holding celebrations in establishments not owned by Black Americans is not peculiar to my church; this happens with churches and organizations celebrating King’s birthday all across this city and our nation. On Monday, many of you will gather at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Philadelphia and participate in one of our city’s largest King celebrations. We will undoubtedly continue down this road of ignoring the economic growth and development that I believe King strongly supported. Go ahead and ask the question I have been asking myself; Why a King celebration at the Sheraton and not the Black-owned and operated First District Plaza at 3801 Market St.? A call to First District Plaza indicated there is nothing scheduled for this weekend at that location, including on Monday. Thus, nothing prevents the use of this facility for MLK activities. Are we going to the Sheraton because of what we constantly heard in the past? You know, “The water is colder at the Sheraton than at 3801.”
This has nothing to do with the Sheraton; it is a fine establishment. This issue relates to money and economic growth. Now, stop it; I said earlier that this is not being racist; it is simply being racial. Think again about King’s focus just before his death.
A few weeks ago, I attended a gathering where issues related to police conduct toward Black men was discussed. This panel discussion came on the hills of the horrific Ferguson shooting and the police chokehold in New York City. As a lively discussion took place, I leaned over to a church member sitting next to me and pointed out that I was sick and tired of all talk and no action. I told him I had little patience for speeches and marches in the past and at this point of my life, no interest in speeches and marches. The King philosophy came out of me; the spirit of coming together, boycotting if necessary while keeping an eye on the economics of being Black. I thought about rising to my feet and advancing a proposal to the group, not to participate in Christmas shopping during the holidays. It was quietly relayed to me that uttering such a thought would probably result in my being ejected from the meeting.
Then there will be the MLK sales that will drive many of you to the malls today and tomorrow. How many of these items will be purchased from stores that are Black-owned and -operated? In all probability, none! But this will not bother many. Too many of us draw no relationship between how we are treated as individuals and as a group in relation to our economic capabilities and potential. Had King lived, I am convinced his positions after the Memphis rally would have moved us quickly to embracing a meaningful economic agenda. So, while there is nothing we can do regarding our King celebrations this year, let us make a commitment to celebrate hia life differently, next year. We can embrace an economic agenda with some advance planning and foresight. We can emphasize shopping Black, supporting Black owned businesses on the King holiday. As it relates to our banquets and luncheons, have them only in Black-owned and operated establishments. Reject the argument that insufficient facilities exist to hold the numbers of people attending, and think about using our churches. Most churches have halls or rooms that can accommodate a hundred or so people. If they are not large enough, scale them back. At least let the monies circulate in your facilities; let the ticket sales promote Black caterers and other Black services. These are monies that can be used for expansion of our church facilities and Black-owned businesses in the future.
Some churches may find themselves in a similar position as Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown. We have a facility that could comfortably accommodate 500 people for a luncheon or dinner. The problem: The interior of the hall has not been completed, although renovations are part of our future plans. So, Salem, like other churches, does not have the type of facility suitable for a luncheon at this time. So, I argue, let us make a sacrifce for future growth. With some temporary cosmetic changes, set it up and start using it as a meeting room and banquet facility. Now, it would not be what we would want, but it would be a sacrifice for the future. Other churches should do the same thing; some would not have to go to this extent to prepare their meeting areas. Many have areas that are currently fit for banquet use. Next year, we all could smile and feel good that we engaged in an activity that represented a significant step in fulfilling Dr. King’s dream — Black folk having moved in the direction of economic independence not only for MLK celebrations, but other occasions such as wedding receptions and family reunions. So, what we do today, patronizing facilities we do not own or operate, could be something that changes because of the luncheons and banquets associated with the MLK holiday. The venues for the MLK celebrations today could become an activity we will talk about with our grandchildren in the future as something we once did back in the day.