Secondly, the award, serves as a validation of sorts. As I’ve mentioned several times, 2015 was the hardest year to date for the Sweet Potato Project, the nonprofit I co-founded in 2012. It was a year of limited donations that rocked me to the core, spiritually and financially. Yes, we made it through the year but, in the eye of the storm, my sense of self esteem and self worth was under attack. That persistent, tiny little voice in my head questioned the viability of our grassroots effort and my qualifications and ability to really enact, sustainable change with youth and adults in low-income neighborhoods.
You see, I’m an ordinary Joe with no real political or influential connections. I’m a high school dropout who was blessed by dozens of benevolent people who, from my youth, recognized my gifts and walked me to opportunity. Receiving the Rosa L. Parks award reminds me that ordinary people can make a difference. Rosa Parks was a seamstress; an extraordinary ordinary woman who simply refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Because of her selfless act, a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to prominence and history was indeed changed forever.
Receiving the award on the day set aside to recognize King’s birth is apropos for me as well. It reminds me of the icon’s beliefs before he was assassinated. It speaks to “other the dream” that’s not discussed much. During this time, we’re often reminded of that one line from that one speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963:
"I have a dream that one day my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
It was a beautiful sentence and a wonderful speech but as writer Chauncy DeVega highlighted last year in the Daily Kos, Dr. King has been homogenized and sterilized: “While Dr. King is praised as American royalty in post civil rights era America, he has been robbed of all of his radicalism, truth-telling, and criticism of white supremacy and white privilege, the latter constituting a deep existential and philosophical rot in the heart of the American political and civic project.”
“While Dr. King is praised as American royalty in post civil rights era America, he has been robbed of all of his radicalism, truth-telling, and criticism of white supremacy and white privilege..."
Many believe the “Dream” speech summarized everything King lived, fought and died for. Some conservative commentators even use the “…not be judged by the color of their skin…” part to argue that King would be against programs like affirmative action or anything “special” done to address historic racial wrongs committed against black people. It’s a direct contradiction of what King actually said: "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro."
King was no pie-in-the-sky dreamer, he was some 40 years ahead of today’s polling data that suggests most whites believe racism has died and there’s no need for government programs aimed at specifically helping black people. This is why King said: “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic."
King was a radical realist who, in 1965, promoted a $50 billion employment proposal aimed at helping some "20,000,000 Negroes" do-for-self. The idea was to invest government money in poor neighborhoods where blacks could rebuild metropolitan areas. King knew if blacks had the resources, they would do what they were forced to do during Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras when they had no choice but build their own businesses, schools and depend on themselves for economic survival.
When interviewed by writer Alex Haley about the proposal, King insisted the $50 billion investment would persuade Blacks to stay in their own neighborhoods. This is important because it contradicts the idea of a colorblind Mecca that’s promoted today in his name. King emphasized the need for blacks to have, maintain and sustain their own neighborhoods, protect their own culture and build their own businesses within their own communities.
Dr. King’s version of economic advancement differed from the welfare and entitlement programs that fully came into play after his death. With the promise of economic, educational and social advancement through integration, many African Americans abandoned the neighborhoods, businesses and schools they had enjoyed or created when they had no choice but live and work amongst themselves.
The beauty of King’s plan was the potential it held to empower ordinary, people within their own neighborhoods. Now, more than ever our times call for a re-visitation of the real King. It’s been 159 years since the Supreme Court ruled that blacks had no rights which whites had to recognize with the Dred Scott decision. Today, with largely unchecked police killings of unarmed black men, boys and women; with the majority of whites believing that they are the most discriminated ethnic group in America; with political antagonists stoking the flames of racial unrest; with local civic and political leaders placing a higher priority on a billion dollar football stadium than the hugely disproportionate rates of crime, poverty, joblessness and diseases impacting its poorest wards and neighborhoods-it’s time to empower the extraordinary ordinary.
My years of researching, writing, preaching and community activism have helped me arrive at the conclusion that the only salvation for black people is to depend less on government and corporate largess or the benevolence of well-meaning whites and go about the business of creating systems (educational, economic and criminal justice) that we control and sustain.
I’m an ordinary guy with an extraordinary program, the Sweet Potato Project. It’s not the way but it is a start at empowering our youth and the extraordinary ordinary among us. The strength of our program is in its simplicity: Gain ownership of the 10,000 vacant lots in the city; educate kids and adults in growing fresh food; create a line of food and products from the produce grown in North St. Louis; reach out to a diverse collective of coffee shops, bakers, restaurants, major grocers and institutions (schools, hospitals, prisons) and convince them to buy produce and products from landowners in North St. Louis. Again, it’s not an all-out panacea but it empowers economically-invested people to secure land, pool their resources, grow mass quantities of food and create small, spin-off businesses (trucking, security, restaurants, entertainment venues, etc) in their own neighborhoods.
Like Dr. King, I realize that trying to empower black people will be an arduous task. But, today, I feel empowered and on track. Today, that tiny little voice of indecision is quiet. Today, I feel somewhat validated for surviving the rough waves of 2015. Today, I am reminded of Rosa L. Parks and the power and potential of the extraordinary, ordinary.