Monday, October 15, 2018

Local Black Politicians and the Sweet Promise of Self-Assertive Community Revitalization



“If the Negro is to be free, he must move down into the inner-resources of his own soul and sign with a pen and ink of self-assertive manhood his own Emancipation Proclamation!” 
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words are still relevant for me, especially in the landscape of local black politics. Take for example, some ideas from a couple black political rivals about combating disproportionate crime in North St. Louis. One spoke of bringing the national guard to troubled North side areas. The other, wants to borrow Boston’s cease fire initiative that uses social services and additional law enforcement to target those believed most likely to commit crimes.  
Have we learned nothing from Mike Brown’s death or its tragic aftermath? Unleashing a militarized presence on poor, black people will only exacerbate already simmering tensions. St. Louis is not Boston or Nashville or Chicago. We have a long, unique and continued history of segregation, abandoning, disenfranchising, targeting and profiting off the suffering of black people and black communities. These quick-fix fantasies are little more than Band-Aids for a much larger, deeply metastasized cancer in our region.  

St. Louis is not Boston or Nashville or Chicago. We have a long, unique and continued history of segregation, abandoning, disenfranchising, targeting and profiting off the suffering of black people and black communities.

St. Louis’ long-ignored, underdeveloped black neighborhoods will never be able to overcome senseless death, high crime, poverty or joblessness until African American politicians use their platforms and resources to inspire and empower citizens within those communities. To paraphrase King, we must reach down into our collective, self-assertive manhood/womanhood and commit to the long, arduous process of empowering people to help themselves build safe, self-sustaining neighborhoods. Militarized forces nor some outside grandiose idea will accomplish this task.
Politicians with do-for-self-with-government-help approaches inspire me. Where are the ones who can sidestep personal egos and motivate an entire region to invest-not in more police or more wealthy neighborhoods-but in the potential that’s already out there in the streets doing the best they can with meager resources or no public megaphone to garner needed resources and support?    
This is why Ald. John C. Muhammad’s (D-21st) $1 housing resolution excites me. It has the potential to spark a self-help community restoration movement. It’s something every black and “progressive” elected official should be discussing, tweaking or supporting in some way, shape or form.
Now, I must admit that my interest is personal. Putting hundreds of parcels of vacant land and empty buildings in the hands of vested city residents-especially, young vested city residents-is a solid step toward reclaiming neighborhoods. With vision, public motivation and resources, it could lead to more home and land-ownership, small businesses and a self-sustaining economic engine in North St. Louis.
Standing alone, however, with no resources to rehab dilapidated buildings, turn vacant land into food-producing lots or create “business zones” in high-traffic Northside areas, the resolution has limited power and slim chances of enacting holistic, wide-spread community change.

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It’s by no means the first time such an effort has been launched in the city. However, as Michael R. Allen illustrates in a recent, illuminating piece titled “The return of One Dollar Housing,” it seems to be the first time such an effort hasn’t been endorsed by powerful, local black politicians. 
Allen lists a bevy of black politicians, starting in the mid-1980s, like State Representative Louis Ford, State Senator J.B. “Jet” Banks, Cong. William L. Clay Sr., Comptroller Virvus Jones and Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr. who used their offices to kick off, support or defend “homesteading” efforts in the city. The article shows how federal dollars and nonprofits, like the anti-poverty group ACORN, offered more than a million dollars in rehabilitation funds. It also details the history of short-sighted, selfish push-back from white politicians and business leaders who were doggedly determined to reserve vacant land for future potential developers.   
I know, many older folks like me wax poetic about “the good ole days.” Today, however, local black politics seem more fractured, more disjointed and un-unified.  A prime example was last year’s mayoral race when four black candidates vying for the same seat, ensured the narrow victory of the lone, well-financed white candidate, former Alderwoman, Lyda Krewson (D-28th).
It seems that personal vacuum politics is the mantra among our elected black officials. I see little-to-no collusion on a widespread, collective agenda to empower black St. Louis. Instead of rebuilding St. Louis’ long-ago dismantled black political machine, it seems that some politicos are intent on disrupting or destroying each other’s careers. This while millions of dollars and tax perks are consistently shifted downtown, midtown and to other already stable, majority white wards, and into the pockets of eager white, wealthy developers.
What happened? When will local black politicians get their communal act together? For these answers and more, I think we need to take a historical look at the genesis that has placed the black body politic in such a chaotic, impotent and self-destructive place.

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Elements of this discord has probably always been a part of the city’s black political machine. Still, it seems there was much more unison and efforts to make collective gains from the late 1960s up until St. Louis elected its first black mayor, Freeman Bosley. Jr., in 1993.     
The very real fear of black politicians controlling what many consider the top three branches of local government-Mayor, Comptroller and Board President-white political and downtown power-brokers panicked. They launched a well-financed and long-term campaign to clean house. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch initiated a series of unprecedented and racially-tinged articles aimed at the mayor, his father, Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd), Comptroller Virvus Jones and the vocal but popular Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th). In the midst of all this planned confusion, Ald. Velma Bailey (D-19th) lost her 1995 bid for aldermanic president, thanks to Mayor Bosley's endorsement of then Ald. Francis G. Slay (D-23rd).
As if to ensure blacks would never again wield the kind of power it had in the mid-1990s, Slay, with the generous, one-sided coverage of the Post-Dispatch, set out to completely disrupt the city’s black power base. 
In 2001, the newly-elected mayor hatched a clandestine redistricting plan specifically designed to throw his nemesis, Tyus, out of office. In doing so, he also dismantled the largest vote-producing ward in North St. Louis.
Ironically, the black political machine which came to power in the mid-6os under the leadership of Cong. Clay Sr., Missouri’s first black elected Congressman, started to crumble around the same time Bosley was elected.
After Slay’s victory in 2001, divisions were further seeded. Black politicians and business leaders publicly sparred as some sided with Slay’s attempts to increase his authority over the city’s police and fire departments, public schools and its board.  His failed “school reform” efforts and the firing of Sherman George, the city’s first black fire chief over the issue of racially-biased testing, left a long and damning trail of bitterness among black voters and reinforced patterns of racially-polarized voting throughout the city.   

Ironically, the black political machine which came to power under Cong. Clay Sr., started to crumble around the same time Mayor Bosley was elected.

The controversial discussion of ward reduction today began under the Slay Administration. Even though voters soundly rejected a 2004 plan backed by the mayor and some of St. Louis' most influential firms to reduce the number of city aldermen, the issue didn’t die.
“Reduce & Reform STL” a 2012 ballot initiative (Proposition R) backed by Slay and orchestrated by Krewson and Ald. Steve Conway (D-8th) was put forth to reduce the number of city wards from 28-to-14. The effort was successful. Roughly 61 percent of voters chose to cut the number of aldermen in half following the 2020 census.

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As someone who’s been writing about local politics for some 30 years, I recognize my tendency to romanticize a long-gone era of black politics. I also know that this is a different time and place where “race” doesn’t necessarily dictate local political competitions. But let us not be naive. The defining line of what areas get money and tax breaks and what areas are ignored, is still very much race-based. In this old, outdated political environment, I can’t squelch the deep-seated desire to see a shared agenda that unifies black politicians and our richly diverse voting base.
Ald. Muhammad’s $1 housing plan seems to have such potential. The beauty of his resolution is that there are already grassroots activities in place and in need of resources that will make his idea less of a pipe dream and more of a city-wide, empowering movement.
With the goal of neighborhood stabilization through affordable home and land-ownership at its core, everything becomes more do-able. Imagine government funding aimed-not just at stable areas like the Central Corridor but for redevelopment along MLK Blvd. This, after all, is the street Beloved Streets of America wants to revitalize from Wellston to East St. Louis and beyond. It’s where Ald. Jeffrey Boyd has installed new street lights to increase public safety. It’s also where Friendly Temple Church has already started the work of community development.
With a collective agenda, ordinary city residents can play powerful, empowering roles in revitalizing and controlling their own neighborhoods. Vested individuals can live in new houses being built on Page Blvd. by Better Family Life, Inc. The Sweet Potato Project and other food-related nonprofits, with city resources, can help low-income residents and millennials turn vacant land into robust, profitable lots of food-production.
Former art gallery-owner Robert Powell’s desire to establish an African-American Arts District under St. Louis’ Zoo-Museum District, which oversees the distribution of $76 million in tax revenue, can become a tax-funded arts-related Shangri-La.. The Urban League can expand its efforts to train minority workers. With a serious plan, black St. Louisans can create their own wealth and vitality in their own neighborhoods, through perhaps demolition, rehab work or as entrepreneurs running small businesses along the newly revitalized MLK strip.
In other words, politicians don’t have to further militarize police or go outside the city for innovative ideas to combat poverty and crime. They can simply turn to their constituents or those already working to reclaim North St. Louis and ask, “what can we do to help you help yourself?”

Local politicians can simply turn to their constituents or those already working to reclaim North St. Louis and ask, “what can we do to help you help yourself?”

Call me an ancient romantic but I’d love to see today’s high-profile politicos like Tishaura Jones, Lewis Reed, Jamillah Nasheed, Bruce Franks, Brandon Bosley and others borrow a page from yesteryear and, for once, act in unison on at least one major, magnetic, engaging issue.
Yes, the “past” may be past, but there are lessons to be learned and attitudes that should be reevaluated, revised and re-instituted. Dr. King is gone, too, but his declaration for “self-assertive manhood” still holds the sweet promise of community-generated possibilities.


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Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a journalist, former Post-Dispatch Metro Columnist and founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an agricultural/entrepreneurial program for urban youth. His upcoming book, "When We Listen" will be available soon.