50 years ago, African American leaders gathered in DC to seek justice and equality. Most remember Martin Luther King Jr. delivering the single best oratory speech since the Gettysburg Address, but John Lewis, A. Phillip Randolph and Roy Wilkins also gave powerful speeches. Just focusing on the world of housing which was a critical plank in the push for jobs and freedom in 1963 there have been strides, but the United States has a long way to go to repay the debt. We have seen poverty and homelessness disproportionately impact African Americans for 150 years. This last year, 80% of the County's homeless population were African American while only 30% of the population of the County were black (as defined by the US Census). Poverty numbers are nearly double for African Americans in Cuyahoga County compared to other races.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked "insufficient funds."
The fair housing act was passed to combat discrimination in both private and public housing, but predatory lending had a devastating impact on the dream of owning a house for many Americans of African descent. We have witnessed African American mayors in many cities in the 1990s and 2000s jailing a large number of African American men who needed a hand up because they were homeless. Still today, the leadership of Columbia South Carolina is going to jail people who refuse shelter. This weekend in which we marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Raleigh North Carolina police threatened arrest for feeding homeless and low income individuals who unfortunately are disproportionately African American. Shelters are routinely restricted from certain neighborhoods or entire cities. In almost every city in America (not including Cleveland), if a citizen loses their housing they end up worse than the way we treat animals, because there is no right to live inside in America. Most have to spend some time on the streets or places not fit for human habitation because when the shelters get full they do not have an overflow system especially in summers.
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.
Despite the Fair Housing Act, housing projects for low income people are routinely blocked by neighbors. Out of fear and probably some lingering racist stereotypes, some neighbors on the near West Side of Cleveland blocked a permanent supportive housing project two years ago. Even the churches in the liberal bastions of Cleveland Hts and Shaker Hts faced opposition when they tried to open their basements to shelter largely black homeless families. Fixed public housing are still not available in Lyndhurst, Beachwood, or Rocky River which means poor people do not have the diversity of choices in where to live or what schools to send their children when compared to middle or upper income Americans. It is easy to see that when a child starts out life behind their peers in the suburbs it will be hard for them to catch up when they never have to the opportunity to join hands with a child from another race.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
African Americans have a significantly higher unemployment rate today similar to the rate in 1963. They have home ownership rates that are much lower than the general population (28% fewer African Americans own homes when compared to White populations in 2009). They have sky-rocketing incarceration rates disproportionate to the population and disproportionate to the criminal population of America. Prison has become the new public housing where African Americans are forced to find education and health care. I believe that King and the other speakers would be speaking, mobilizing and marching about the injustice of the criminal justice system today. We have created our own unforgiving Apartheid system that keeps a segment of the population poor, without a job and without housing for decades.
We had a national housing policy that Presidents ran on up until 1980. We do not have a plan to house our own citizens in safe, decent or affordable manner. We do not have a way to care for disabled individuals even with a place for them to live. We are moving backward in providing voting rights to African Americans who may want to vote for Mayors or Governors who will do something about the disparity in jobs, housing, or health care. We have no problem accepting that African Americans will be searched on the streets for no other probable cause then the color of their skin or denied even an application for housing for no other reason then the color of their skin.
With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Every list of problems facing our society African American are on the top from incarceration, homeless, high school drop out rates, those without health insurance to the hungry, jobless, and impoverished. Any objective analysis of the state of American Americans has to show open oppression has turned to willful neglect. We have included the words of King here because of their power even after 50 years. It seems that the "whirlwinds of revolt" that King referenced are not continuing to shake the foundation of democracy, but instead we have the tornado of acceptance and complacency that marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. We as a society have come to accept that black neighborhoods will have bad schools and are indifferent to African Americans living with periods of homelessness that destroy families and destabilize the male population. Only a portion of our society is "free at last."
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