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  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
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  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#859 -- Report from Baltimore, 15-Jun-2006

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Rachel's Democracy & Health News #859

"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"

Thursday, June 15, 2006.................Printer-friendly version
www.rachel.org -- To make a secure donation, click here.
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Featured stories in this issue...

A Personal Report from the Baltimore Precaution Conference
  The Baltimore conference on precaution was a smashing success in
  more ways than one. The workshops were fabulous, the speakers were
  great. And our old nemesis white privilege reared its ancient head,
  giving us all one more opportunity to confront this familiar demon.
  Confronting and overcoming white privilege is a political imperative
  for our time. It we fail in this, we can never take back America.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
  When any of us speaks out publicly against injustice -- including
  the blindness and unintentional injustice of our allies and friends --
  we risk being criticized and ostracized. They may tell us to sit down
  and shut up. They may say our actions are unwise and untimely. When
  the Reverend Martin Luther King was criticized by colleagues in 1963
  he responded with this letter, saying, in part, "Injustice anywhere is
  a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable
  network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever
  affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Plight Deepens for Black Men, Study Warns
  "The share of young black men without jobs has climbed
  relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the
  late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in
  their 20's were jobless -- that is, unable to find work, not seeking
  it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent."

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From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #859, Jun. 15, 2006
[Printer-friendly version]

A PERSONAL REPORT FROM THE BALTIMORE PRECAUTION CONFERENCE

By Peter Montague

The precaution conference last weekend in Baltimore was a smashing
success in more ways than one. Almost everyone who filled out an
evaluation form began with "Great!" or something close. It was well-
organized, well-run, and filled with good dialog and useful tools and
information that people carried home to use in their own work.

With any luck, the conference laid the groundwork for much closer
collaboration between groups that often don't talk to each other. We
all owe huge thanks to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice
(CHEJ) who attended to so many mechanical details of the conference so
ably -- audio-visual equipment, lunch tickets (and lunches!), hotel
rooms for everyone, and on and on and on -- with special thanks to
Anne Rabe, Lynne Fessenden and Sharon Franklin.

But it was a wonderful conference for another reason as well. It
illuminated once again the depths of misunderstanding,
miscommunication and mistrust that have afflicted social justice
movements as far back in U.S. history as you want to look. It may seem
odd to view this as a plus, but it is. It's a huge plus and here's
why: it offers us all a first-hand opportunity to examine the
invisible forces that allow us to be divided and ruled by our
adversaries. If we can't understand and overcome these divisive
forces, our adversaries will drive a wedge of fear and suspicion
between us. They have done it before. If we cannot learn to join
together and work together and stay together, our adversaries will
continue to corrupt the spirit of America for their own short-term
profit and mean-spirited ends. That's what's happened in recent
decades, and we all know it.

Here's the basic situation: those of us who want America to fulfill
its promise -- who want it to be the land of the free and the home of
the brave, with liberty and justice for all -- know that we can only
achieve these goals is we have stable communities, a sound economy,
and a healthy environment. It we're all fearful of losing our jobs, or
if we all have to drive 2 hours each way each day to make ends meet,
or if we've all got cancer, diabetes, and attention deficits, there's
no way we can secure our liberties or gain justice for all. If our
local economies are being Wal-Martized and the air and water make us
sick, we're only headed for trouble and more trouble, without end.

So we've got to get America onto a new footing, a new path, so it can
fulfill its promise. This means developing a huge coalition.

And we can do it. We've got what it takes. We outnumber our
adversaries at least two to one, and often by far more than that.

But THEY have perfected the art of "divide and rule." In fact, divide
and rule is the ONLY thing they've got going for them. If our
adversaries fail to divide us, the game is over for them.

So what we can do is get together and stay together. If we can do
that, we can prevail.

But it's oh-so-easy to divide people in America. It's way easier to
divide them than it is to pull them together -- especially when you
try to reach across the chasms of class and race.

That of course is the trick. If you believe that the New Deal
programs of President Franklin Roosevelt were good for America, then
you know what it takes to put American back on track -- it takes a
righteous political coalition of underdogs -- workers, women, African-
Americans, Hispanics, Indigenous People, Asians, the poor, the sick,
the downtrodden, the disrespected, the marginalized, students, youth
and others, in coalition with the millions of good-hearted liberal
people of privilege who believe strongly in the promise of America. It
takes a righteous political coalition of the people who know that the
nation's strength is its diversity, its generosity of spirit, and its
ethic of hard work, taking responsibility for your own deeds, and
keeping on in the face of adversity. It takes a righteous coalition of
the people who know that community is what counts.

So back to the Baltimore conference, which was about building a
movement. The conference was awfully white. The U.S. today is 32%
African-American, Hispanic, Indigenous People and Asian-Americans. But
when you looked around at the 300 plus attendees in Baltimore, you
didn't see the 100 faces you should have seen. You saw too many pale
people.

Folks, this is privilege at work. As my friends at smartMeme pointed
out, privilege is only visible to those who don't have it. Nobody
planned it this way. No one said, "Let's keep this thing mainly
white." On the contrary. I was a member of the steering committee for
the conference, as were about 45 other people, quite a few of them not
white. None of us set out to diminish diversity at the conference. But
given the way things work in the U.S., unless you try really, really,
really hard to get diverse participation, white people get the front
row seats and everybody else goes to the back of the bus or they miss
the bus completely. (The same thing is true of youth. The deck is
seriously stacked against an equal footing for young people.)

So the Baltimore conference showed us white privilege at work. No
one plotted or planned to make the conference predominantly white. Far
from it. If you asked any individual member of the steering committee
their preference, they'd have all said "Diversity is essential. We
want to build a diverse, robust movement. We're sunk without
diversity."

But white privilege cuts like a sharp knife when nobody's looking. It
starts before birth. You're born white so you're far less likely to
grow up poor, you're far more likely to live in a family that owns a
home which then serves as collateral for loans, which make it easier
to start a business and/or get an education, which gives you a better
job, which allows you to save and pass those savings and that
education onto your children. As time goes on the disparities grow
wider and deeper. Inequalities accumulate and multiply. Pathways to
success are subtly blocked. Some people get angry and some who are
angry express it. Who wants to work with them? Social exclusion
hardens like prison walls. This is how privilege works, invisibly,
inexorably. Until someone intervenes, there is no exit from this
circle of isolation and injustice.

This is how privilege works when everyone is good-hearted and well-
intentioned. But if your GOAL is to advance white supremacy, then
things get far worse very fast. This is what the Republicans have been
doing since at least 1964 when Barry Goldwater ran for president on a
platform opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Goldwater got trounced, but Alabama's George Wallace saw that
Goldwater had begun to drive a wedge of race into the New Deal
coalition and was peeling off white southerners from the Democratic
Party. A new Republican "southern strategy" was being born, built on
America's racist tendencies. [See sidebar: A winning politics built on
racism.]

[Story continues below the sidebar.]

========================================================

SIDEBAR: A Winning Politics Built on Racism

After the civil rights marches, protests and battles of the early
1960s, the southern states were seething as an end to apartheid was
forced on them by national guardsmen wielding bayonets. When Wallace
ran an explicitly racist campaign for President he discovered to his
surprise that he could draw huge crowds and a large voter turnout,
even in some northern states -- for example, 30% in Michigan. "They
all hate black people, all of them!," he is reported to have said.
"Great God! That's it! They're all southern. The whole United States
is southern!"[1,pg.6]

This was not quite true of course, but it was true that unspoken
tendencies toward white supremacy were alive and well across America
-- not a majority perspective except in the south, perhaps, but common
enough to be readily exploitable by unprincipled politicians.

During his long career, in which he vowed never to be "out-niggered"
by a white-supremacist political opponent, George Wallace went on to
discover (some would say "invent") the politics of resentment and hate
-- which every major Republican presidential candidate has used to
advantage since, including Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald
Reagan, Pat Buchanan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. If you
don't believe that this is true, I have four books to recommend:

1. Dan T. Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the
Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (1996; ISBN 0-8071-2366-8).

2. Thomas and Mary Edsall's Chain Reaction; The Impact of Race,
Rights and Taxes on American Politics (1992; ISBN 0-393-30903-7)

3. Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion; Right Wing Movements and
Political Power in the United States (N.Y.: The Guilford Press,
1995); ISBN 0-89862-864-4.

4. Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment (Boston: Beacon Press,
1999); ISBN 0-8070-4316-8).

With the historical evidence presented in these four books, I believe
the case is closed. Republican strategists used -- and continue to use
-- race to divide and then conquer the bottom-up New Deal coalition,
which they have replaced with a top-down Republican coalition of
plutocrats and radical Christian fundamentalists, which then allowed
them to engineer the most accelerated upwards redistribution of wealth
in the nation's history.

Racial resentments were carefully cultivated and manipulated, in
combination with anger about "anti-Christian" court decisions
outlawing prayer and Bible readings in public schools; street crime;
"welfare queens;" law-flaunting anti-war protestors; women demanding
liberation from lives of drudgery (and demanding the right to control
their own reproduction, up to and including abortion if needed);
"pointy-headed intellectuals" developing unpopular policies like
busing kids across town to integrate the schools; and hippies thumbing
their noses at the social conventions of sex and drugs. From 1965
onward, coded appeals to white supremacy became standard fare among
Republican politicians (and among those members of the opposing party
who became known as "Reagan Democrats").

As historian Dan T. Carter has concluded, race remains the driving
wedge of conservative American politics -- it is the thing that most
reliably divides the old New Deal coalition and thus allows
Republicans to prevail. The Republicans maintain their tenuous hold on
power through a fractious coalition of social conservatives, fiscal
conservatives, world-empire-through-military-might conservatives,
ethnic conservatives, and religious conservatives -- and the glue that
holds the whole thing together is coded appeals to white supremacy.
Think Willy Horton, the convicted murder who committed another
murder while on furlough from prison -- a furlough arranged by then-
Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. President George H.W. Bush's
subtly but unmistakably racist Willy Horton TV ads sunk Michael
Dukakis's chances of becoming president and in a very real sense began
the Bush dynasty that rules America today.

========================================================

After 1972, Wallace's southern followers joined the Republican Party
and the Republicans went on to build a new political majority on the
solid foundation of the white supremacist south. It wasn't long before
they were enticing Christian conservatives -- many of them avowed
white supremacists (think Bob Jones University where President George
W. Bush made an important campaign stop during the 2000 primary) --
into their coalition, and working to dismantle, or at least obstruct,
desegregation and affirmative action policies. They could not openly
embrace white supremacy, but they could -- and did -- work hard behind
the scenes to see that blacks and Latinos were kept in their places.

As Frank Peterman pointed out at the Baltimore conference, U.S.
public schools are as segregated now as they were on May 17, 1954,
when the Supreme Court ordered them desegregated.

If we want to take back America, we must build (or rebuild) an nation-
wide interracial coalition. This is a political imperative for our
time. If can't do this, then nothing else will matter politically. The
racists will triumph. The racists are at work now in Congress,
demonizing immigrants who have been driven off their land at home by
NAFTA, forced to abandon their villages and trek northward in the
night, making a dangerous passage to a place where they know they will
be despised, reviled, treated like cattle, often with no more rights
than slaves. Encouraging illegal immigrants, then periodically
rounding them up, criminalizing them, and deporting them is a brutal
pattern in U.S. history. We're seeing it again now. Want to slow
illegal immigration? Fix NAFTA. Read more about NAFTA and how it
drives illegal immigration here, here and here.

Back to the conference in Baltimore.

By late Saturday, people had had a chance to look around and see that
white people were dominant in the audience and on many discussion
panels. It made some of them angry. Here were their friends and
colleagues going about their business oblivious to the privilege that
diminished the voices of color and of youth.

Two young women decided they had to blow the whistle -- never an easy
task to take on. In a plenary session, Felicia Eaves chided us from
the podium that we had not paid one whit of attention to our fallen
brother and leader, Damu Smith. Damu had died May 5th of cancer at
age 54, leaving behind a 13-year-old daughter, Asha Moore Smith. It
seems likely that Damu's death stemmed from his work against the toxic
juggernauts of the Gulf Coast where he spent so many of his last
years. Damu had been a relentless advocate for justice and peace
throughout his life and everyone who knew him loved and respected him,
and benefited from his gentle guiding hand. Felicia Eaves had taken
charge of raising money for Damu in his final year to help defray his
enormous medical bills, worrying about what was going to happen to his
daughter, communicating with his friends, keeping hope alive. You can
send a contribution to a trust fund for Asha Moore Smith at this
address:

Asha Moore Smith Trust
c/o The Praxis Project
1750 Columbia Road, NW -- 2nd Floor
Washington, DC 20009

The second chiding was more sweeping. From the podium, Martha Dina
Arguello pointed out, with regret, that we had failed to make the
conference racially and ethnically representative. Through tears,
Martha apologized for being the one who had to tell us this truth --
but thank God she had the courage to tell it, is all I can say.

These are hard, hard lessons. It's embarrassing and humiliating to
have your failings pointed out to you not once but twice in short
order. The tendency is to say, "Yes, but..." and to offer some good
explanation for why things turned out as they did.

But the point is that things DID turn out as they did. All of us --
every last good-hearted one of us -- failed our brothers and sisters
of color. We failed our youth.

But it gets worse. That evening at the awards ceremony, we did not
give a "Pioneers of Precaution" award to some of our most deserving
and truest Pioneers of Precaution -- among them, the courageous Martha
Dina Arguello.

It was Martha Dina who instigated and organized the first grass-roots
workshop on precaution in Los Angeles in 2001. This in turn led to the
formation of the Cal/EPA [California Environmental Protection Agency]
Advisory Committee on Environmental Justice, which in turn led to the
adoption of environmental justice and a "precautionary approach" as
key goals for all Cal/EPA programs. These are huge, unprecedented
successes. Martha Dina and her organization in Los Angeles, Physicians
for Social Responsibility, helped develop the specific language that
drove precaution into the pest management policies of the Los Angeles
Unified School District, which has subsequently been emulated in
dozens, perhaps hundreds, of school districts all across the nation,
including a state-wide policy in New Jersey. Martha Dina Arguello has
done hugely important pioneering work on precaution -- as has Joe Lyou
of the California Environmental Rights Alliance. Through a series of
mixups, misunderstandings, misdirected emails, and other errors,
neither was recognized for their pioneering work at the Baltimore
conference. It was a stupendous, hurtful failure.

So we've got some humble and humbling work to do, friends. We are
blind. We need help learning to see. To reach out. To respect. To
remember. To ask forgiveness for our many failings, all of us. To
resolve to do better. To resolve to make this succeed, because if we
can't learn to make interracial coalitions work, we're sunk, all of
us, and our adversaries will carry the day. It is so easy to divide
us, and it is so terribly important to not let it happen.

No one is saying it will be easy. We are all carrying 500 years of
brutal history in our hearts whether we know it or not, whether we
acknowledge it or not. It is in the air we breathe. It affects
everything we do in America. The harsh truth is, we are a nation born
of genocide, founded on the unspeakable cruelties of slavery and
forced labor. As a nation, we bear that legacy like a cross of shame.
Slavery is written into our Constitution. Go read it for yourself. Our
history of white supremacy and brutal exploitation hangs like a
deafening silence that envelops the room whenever whites and non-
whites come together. We can get anti-racism training, all of us, to
try to understand white supremacy and white privilege. No doubt such
training can help.

But even then we will have to continue to struggle with this. It is
the one essential piece of work that we can never put aside, never
ignore, never let go. It will determine whether we succeed or fail in
helping America live up to its promise.

What could be more important than that?

==============

[1] Dan T. Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the
Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (1996; ISBN 0-8071-2366-8).

Return to Table of Contents

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From: Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Apr. 16, 1963
[Printer-friendly version]

LETTER FROM A BIRMINGHAM JAIL

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your
recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely."
Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I
sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries
would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in
the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.
But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your
criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your
statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have
been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming
in." I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every
southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some
eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them
is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we
share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates.
Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on
call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were
deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we
lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff,
am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have
organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just
as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and
carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their
home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus
and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the
Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom
beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the
Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities
and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about
what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice
everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied
in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects
all indirectly.

Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside
agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be
considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your
statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for
the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that
none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of
social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple
with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are
taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the
city's white power structure left the Negro community with no
alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of
the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-
purification; and direct action. We have gone through an these steps
in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial
injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most
thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of
brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust
treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of
Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the
nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of
these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city
fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith
negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of
Birmingham's economic community. In the course of the negotiations,
certain promises were made by the merchants -- for example, to remove
the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises,
the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama
Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all
demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we
were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed,
returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes bad been blasted, and the
shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative
except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very
bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the
local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties
involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We
began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked
ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are
you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our
direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for
Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that
a strong economic withdrawl program would be the by-product of direct
action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to
bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham's mayoralty election was coming
up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after
election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public
Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the
run-off we decided again to postpone action until the day after the
run-off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the
issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to
this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in
this community need, we felt that our direct-action program could be
delayed no longer.

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so
forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in
calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct
action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and
foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to
negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize
the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of
tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound
rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word
"tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a
type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for
growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a
tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of
myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and
objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies
to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from
the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of
understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so
crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I
therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has
our beloved South land been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in
monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I
and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have
asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?"
The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new
Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the
outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel
that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor. will bring the
millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle
person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to
maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be
reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to
desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees
of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a
single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent
pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups
seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the
moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as
Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than
individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily
given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly,
I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed"
in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of
segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in
the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has
almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our
distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice
denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-
given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike
speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at
horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch
counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging
dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious
mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and
brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick
and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast
majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an
airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you
suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you
seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can't go to the
public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and
see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is
closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority
beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to
distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward
white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old
son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so
mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to
sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your
automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated
day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored";
when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy"
(however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife
and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are
harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro,
living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect
next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you
are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you
will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time
when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to
be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand
our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break
laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently
urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing
segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather
paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How
can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer
lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I
would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a
legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one
has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with
St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all"

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine
whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that
squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code
that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of
St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in
eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is
just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All
segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul
and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of
superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.
Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin
Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship
and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence
segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically
unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is
separation. Is not segregation an existential expression 'of man's
tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?'
Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the
Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey
segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An
unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels
a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is
difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a
majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow
itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on
a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no
part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature
of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was
democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious
methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters,
and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a
majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any
law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically
structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For
instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a
permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which
requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust
when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First
Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out.
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the
rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an
unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to
accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that
conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty
of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community
over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for
law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience.
It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and
Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a
higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early
Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating
pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of
the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today
because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the
Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was
"legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary
was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's
Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time,
I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived
in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian
faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that
country's anti religious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish
brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have
been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost
reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling
block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's
Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more
devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which
is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of
justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek,
but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who
paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's
freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly
advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow
understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than
absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance
is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and
order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they
fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that
block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate
would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary
phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the
Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and
positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of
human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action
are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the
hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open,
where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be
cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its
ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be
exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of
human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be
cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful,
must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a
logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his
possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this
like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth
and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided
populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like
condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-
ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of
crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have
consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his
efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may
precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the
robber.

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth
concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just
received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All
Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights
eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious
hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to
accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to
earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time,
from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very
flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself
is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.
More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much
more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to
repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions
of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes
through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God,
and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces
of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge
that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real
the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into
a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national
policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of
human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was
rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent
efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that
stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One
is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result
of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a
sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in
part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of
academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by
segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.
The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes
perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the
various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the
nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim
movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued
existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people
who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated
Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an
incorrigible "devil."

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need
emulate neither the "do-nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred
and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent
way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through
the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an
integral part of our struggle.

If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South
would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further
convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble-rousers" and
"outside agitators" those of us who employ nonviolent direct action,
and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of
Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security
in black-nationalist ideologies a development that would inevitably
lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for
freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to
the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his
birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it
can be gained. Consciously or. unconsciously, he has been caught up by
the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and
yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United
States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the
promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge
that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand
why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up
resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let
him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him
go on freedom rides -- and try to understand why he must do so. If his
repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek
expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of
history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your
discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy
discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent
direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an
extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained
a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist
for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to
them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and
persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice
roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body
the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist:
"Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John
Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a
butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot
survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold
these truths to be self-evident, that an men are created equal...." So
the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of
extremists we vill be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the
extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three
men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified
for the same crime -- the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for
immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus
Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby
rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the
world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was
too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have
realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the
deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still
fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by
strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that
some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of
this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still
too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -- such as
Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann
Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle -- have written about our struggle in
eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down
nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-
infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who
view them as "dirty nigger lovers." Unlike so many of their moderate
brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment
and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the
disease of segregation.

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so
greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of
course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the
fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue.
I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this
past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a non
segregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for
integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I
have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of
those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the
church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church;
who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual
blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life
shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest
in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported
by the white church, felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis
of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have
been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement
and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more
cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the
anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope
that the white religious leadership of this community would see the
justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the
channel through which our just grievances could reach the power
structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I
have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their
worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the
law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this
decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is
your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the
Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth
pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a
mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I
have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which
the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches
commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which makes a
strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the
sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all
the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn
mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their
lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive
outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I
have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is
their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett
dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they
when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and .hatred?
Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men
and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the
bright hills of creative protest?"

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I
have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears
have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where
there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do
otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the
grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as
the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that
body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful -- in the time when
the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for
what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a
thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion;
it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever
the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became
disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being
"disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators" But the Christians
pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven,"
called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in
commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically
intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such
ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak,
ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an
archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the
presence of the church, the power structure of the average community
is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of
things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's
church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church,
it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be
dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the
twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment
with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion
too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the
world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the
church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the
world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the
ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing
chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle
for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the
streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways
of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to
jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost
the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted
in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.
Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true
meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a
tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive
hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I
have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of
our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present
misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, and
all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused
and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's
destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before
the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of
Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than
two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages;
they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while
suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -- and yet out of a
bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the
inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition
we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the
sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied
in our echoing demands.

Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your
statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the
Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence."
I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if
you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent
Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if
you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here
in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro
women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old
Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on
two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our
grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham
police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in
handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted
themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To
preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I
have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we
use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear
that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I
must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use
moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his
policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief
Pritchett in Albany, Georgia but they have used the moral means of
nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S.
Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do
the right deed for the wrong reason."

I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of
Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and
their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day
the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James
Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face
jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that
characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed,
battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in
Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her
people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with
ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My
feets is tired, but my soul is at rest." They vill be the young high
school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a
host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at
lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience's sake. One
day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God
sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what
is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our
Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those
great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers
in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of
Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much
too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would
have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk,
but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other
than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and
indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I
have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having
a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than
brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that
circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you,
not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow
clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark
clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of
misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities,
and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and
brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their
scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This response to a published statement by eight fellow
clergymen from Alabama (Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A.
Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B.
Harmon, the Reverend George M. Murray. the Reverend Edward V. Ramage
and the Reverend Earl Stallings) was composed under somewhat
constricting circumstance. Begun on the margins of the newspaper in
which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was
continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro
trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted
to leave me. Although the text remains in substance unaltered, I have
indulged in the author's prerogative of polishing it for publication.

Return to Table of Contents

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From: New York Times, Mar. 20, 2006
[Printer-friendly version]

PLIGHT DEEPENS FOR BLACK MEN, STUDY WARNS

By Erik Eckholm

Black men in the United States face a far more dire situation than is
portrayed by common employment and education statistics, a flurry of
new scholarly studies warn, and it has worsened in recent years even
as an economic boom and a welfare overhaul have brought gains to black
women and other groups.

Focusing more closely than ever on the life patterns of young black
men, the new studies, by experts at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and
other institutions, show that the huge pool of poorly educated black
men are becoming ever more disconnected from the mainstream society,
and to a far greater degree than comparable white or Hispanic men.

Especially in the country's inner cities, the studies show, finishing
high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever and
prison is almost routine, with incarceration rates climbing for blacks
even as urban crime rates have declined.

Although the problems afflicting poor black men have been known for
decades, the new data paint a more extensive and sobering picture of
the challenges they face.

"There's something very different happening with young black men, and
it's something we can no longer ignore," said Ronald B. Mincy,
professor of social work at Columbia University and editor of "Black
Males Left Behind" (Urban Institute Press, 2006).

"Over the last two decades, the economy did great," Mr. Mincy said,
"and low-skilled women, helped by public policy, latched onto it. But
young black men were falling farther back."

Many of the new studies go beyond the traditional approaches to
looking at the plight of black men, especially when it comes to
determining the scope of joblessness. For example, official
unemployment rates can be misleading because they do not include those
not seeking work or incarcerated.

"If you look at the numbers, the 1990's was a bad decade for young
black men, even though it had the best labor market in 30 years,"
said Harry J. Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and co-
author, with Peter Edelman and Paul Offner, of "Reconnecting
Disadvantaged Young Men" (Urban Institute Press, 2006).

In response to the worsening situation for young black men, a growing
number of programs are placing as much importance on teaching life
skills -- like parenting, conflict resolution and character building
-- as they are on teaching job skills.

These were among the recent findings:

The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly,
with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's.
In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's
were jobless -- that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or
incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared
with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even
when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their
20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.

Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs
in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's
who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent
were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had
dropped out of school had spent time in prison.

In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish
high school.

None of the litany of problems that young black men face was news to a
group of men from the airless neighborhoods of Baltimore who recently
described their experiences.

One of them, Curtis E. Brannon, told a story so commonplace it hardly
bears notice here. He quit school in 10th grade to sell drugs,
fathered four children with three mothers, and spent several stretches
in jail for drug possession, parole violations and other crimes.

"I was with the street life, but now I feel like I've got to get
myself together," Mr. Brannon said recently in the row-house flat he
shares with his girlfriend and four children. "You get tired of
incarceration."

Mr. Brannon, 28, said he planned to look for work, perhaps as a mover,
and he noted optimistically that he had not been locked up in six
months.

A group of men, including Mr. Brannon, gathered at the Center for
Fathers, Families and Workforce Development, one of several private
agencies trying to help men build character along with workplace
skills.

The clients readily admit to their own bad choices but say they also
fight a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

"It hurts to get that boot in the face all the time," said Steve
Diggs, 34. "I've had a lot of charges but only a few convictions,"
he said of his criminal record.

Mr. Diggs is now trying to strike out on his own, developing a party
space for rentals, but he needs help with business skills.

"I don't understand," said William Baker, 47. "If a man wants to
change, why won't society give him a chance to prove he's a changed
person?" Mr. Baker has a lot of record to overcome, he admits, not
least his recent 15-year stay in the state penitentiary for armed
robbery.

Mr. Baker led a visitor down the Pennsylvania Avenue strip he wants to
escape -- past idlers, addicts and hustlers, storefront churches and
fortresslike liquor stores -- and described a life that seemed
inevitable.

He sold marijuana for his parents, he said, left school in the sixth
grade and later dealt heroin and cocaine. He was for decades addicted
to heroin, he said, easily keeping the habit during three terms in
prison. But during his last long stay, he also studied hard to get a
G.E.D. and an associate's degree.

Now out for 18 months, Mr. Baker is living in a home for recovering
drug addicts. He is working a $10-an-hour warehouse job while he
ponders how to make a living from his real passion, drawing and
graphic arts.

"I don't want to be a criminal at 50," Mr. Baker said.

According to census data, there are about five million black men ages
20 to 39 in the United States.

Terrible schools, absent parents, racism, the decline in blue collar
jobs and a subculture that glorifies swagger over work have all been
cited as causes of the deepening ruin of black youths. Scholars -- and
the young men themselves -- agree that all of these issues must be
addressed.

Joseph T. Jones, director of the fatherhood and work skills center
here, puts the breakdown of families at the core.

"Many of these men grew up fatherless, and they never had good role
models," said Mr. Jones, who overcame addiction and prison time. "No
one around them knows how to navigate the mainstream society."

All the negative trends are associated with poor schooling, studies
have shown, and progress has been slight in recent years. Federal data
tend to understate dropout rates among the poor, in part because
imprisoned youths are not counted.

Closer studies reveal that in inner cities across the country, more
than half of all black men still do not finish high school, said Gary
Orfield, an education expert at Harvard and editor of "Dropouts in
America" (Harvard Education Press, 2004).

"We're pumping out boys with no honest alternative," Mr. Orfield
said in an interview, "and of course their neighborhoods offer many
other alternatives."

Dropout rates for Hispanic youths are as bad or worse but are not
associated with nearly as much unemployment or crime, the data show.

With the shift from factory jobs, unskilled workers of all races have
lost ground, but none more so than blacks. By 2004, 50 percent of
black men in their 20's who lacked a college education were jobless,
as were72 percent of high school dropouts, according to data compiled
by Bruce Western, a sociologist at Princeton and author of the
forthcoming book "Punishment and Inequality in America" (Russell
Sage Press). These are more than double the rates for white and
Hispanic men.

Mr. Holzer of Georgetown and his co-authors cite two factors that have
curbed black employment in particular.

First, the high rate of incarceration and attendant flood of former
offenders into neighborhoods have become major impediments. Men with
criminal records tend to be shunned by employers, and young blacks
with clean records suffer by association, studies have found.

Arrests of black men climbed steeply during the crack epidemic of the
1980's, but since then the political shift toward harsher punishments,
more than any trends in crime, has accounted for the continued growth
in the prison population, Mr. Western said.

By their mid-30's, 30 percent of black men with no more than a high
school education have served time in prison, and 60 percent of
dropouts have, Mr. Western said.

Among black dropouts in their late 20's, more are in prison on a given
day -- 34 percent -- than are working -- 30 percent -- according to an
analysis of 2000 census data by Steven Raphael of the University of
California, Berkeley.

The second special factor is related to an otherwise successful
policy: the stricter enforcement of child support. Improved collection
of money from absent fathers has been a pillar of welfare overhaul.
But the system can leave young men feeling overwhelmed with debt and
deter them from seeking legal work, since a large share of any
earnings could be seized.

About half of all black men in their late 20's and early 30's who did
not go to college are noncustodial fathers, according to Mr. Holzer.
From the fathers' viewpoint, support obligations "amount to a tax on
earnings," he said.

Some fathers give up, while others find casual work. "The work is
sporadic, not the kind that leads to advancement or provides
unemployment insurance," Mr. Holzer said. "It's nothing like having
a real job."

The recent studies identified a range of government programs and
experiments, especially education and training efforts like the Job
Corps, that had shown success and could be scaled up.

Scholars call for intensive new efforts to give children a better
start, including support for parents and extra schooling for children.

They call for teaching skills to prisoners and helping them re-enter
society more productively, and for less automatic incarceration of
minor offenders.

In a society where higher education is vital to economic success, Mr.
Mincy of Columbia said, programs to help more men enter and succeed in
college may hold promise. But he lamented the dearth of policies and
resources to aid single men.

"We spent $50 billion in efforts that produced the turnaround for
poor women," Mr. Mincy said. "We are not even beginning to think
about the men's problem on similar orders of magnitude."

Return to Table of Contents

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  Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment &
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  rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among
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