A Dream Deferred On Clay Street


January 23, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

The First Baptist Church at Clay and West Washington streets in Annapolis was the right place to be last Monday, the 65th birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Those who have watched the civil rights movement from afar, or who have never felt the sting of injustice, or who still do not comprehend why we stop once a year to remember what Dr. King did, might have better understood had they been there.

What a paradox is this church.

Inside its vaulted walls, Dr. King's dream of every man, woman and child having an equal chance in life thrives.

The precious idea that race and class should not divide us is preached from the pulpit by a man who has lived according to that creed.

"This building," said the Rev. Leroy Bowman, "was placed here for the citizens of Annapolis. Not just for this area," once the hub of the black community, "but for the city . . . This is where we dream."

Some of the activity that led to Dr. King's birthday becoming a national holiday was done in this church.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has spoken here, as did the late author Alex Haley.

Here, "we know that brotherhood cannot be legislated. Brotherhood is a matter of the heart," said Rev. Bowman, his 84-year-old voice as sure as ever.

"And all of us," he added, "are brothers and sisters together."

But all around the church, up and down Clay Street and along all the little roads branching off of it, Dr. King's dream of brotherhood and equal opportunity remains a phantasm.

The 26 years that have passed since his death have not been kind to the Old Fourth Ward, as it is still known.

It was a better place then than it is now.

Gone is the old movie theater, the bustling business district. Gone are the doctors' offices, the well-kept homes, the clubs where nationally known musicians played and sang.

Urban renewal came and took it all away. In return, it gave the neighborhood the Arundel Center, the headquarters of Anne Arundel County government, and not much else. The promises of new businesses and better housing were never fulfilled.

Resources followed the path of political influence -- the historic district, affluent communities, the outskirts where malls became the new hubs of activity.

"A dream deferred."

That's what you see on Clay Street, Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden told the small group who braved the sleet and snow to observe Dr. King's birthday at the First Baptist Church.

"Go up Clay Street and take a right or a left," he advised.

"You find unemployed people in need of assistance. You find young people in need of assistance. Walk up Clay Street, and you see people who have not achieved the American dream."

Poverty, persistent crime, occasional violence, hopelessness -- you see it all, just outside the church where Dr. King's vision lives, and in the shadow of the State House.

What would Dr. King have thought?

The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, stood in front of the church and guessed that Dr. King would "turn over in his grave" if he could see what is happening in African-American communities such as Clay Street.

I suspect he is right.

But I also suspect that, unlike many -- black and white -- who have grown hopeless and cynical about the chances of changing communities, that he would not give up so easily.

He would look at Clay Street, as Mr. Snowden said, "as an opportunity and a challenge."

"He would say to those of us in power, 'Have we done enough to eradicate poverty and despair?' He would say that just as we have the same responsibility to make the streets safe in a snowstorm, so we have the same responsibility to make the streets safe for those who walk up Clay Street," Mr. Snowden said.

In recent weeks, African-American leaders -- most notably Mr. Jackson -- have criticized the black community for hurting itself.

More blacks, they note, are now killed by blacks in a single year than were lynched during the most violent phases of the civil rights struggle.

They are chiding black communities for having lost enthusiasm for Dr. King's dream.

They are telling them they have a responsibility to save themselves.

Can anyone doubt the truth or value of this message?

But I fear that those who have long felt that the Clay Streets of this country are partly, if not largely, to blame for their own problems will hear it and decide it is all right to do nothing.

In Rev. Bowman's church, where the dream lives, blame doesn't matter, and we're all brothers and sisters in this together.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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