King's dream runs up against 1990s reality

January 15, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Martin Luther King still stands for something, but it's getting harder to remember exactly what. He was the brief flirtation the country had with colorblindness. He said there's got to be room for everybody in the marketplaces of politics and jobs.

But, just as it's ironic that, 30 years ago, Malcolm X was killed on the first day of National Brotherhood Week, the nation today marks the 66th anniversary of Dr. King's birth with Malcolm X's daughter facing charges of conspiring to kill Minister Louis Farrakhan.

History has a way of playing catch-up while we've got our backs turned. For years, there were whispers that Farrakhan had a hand in Malcolm's murder. Farrakhan calls this slander. Martin Luther King talked of loving your enemies. The nation calls this hopelessly outdated, and says so on the radio every day.

The mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, talks glumly of young blacks killing each other. A generation self-destructs at the point of a gun. In Washington, Newt Gingrich offers what is termed an olive branch to the Democrats, citing their historic efforts to bring civil rights to black people.

Left conveniently unsaid: The Republicans tried to stand in the way. The Democrats' efforts crushed their party, made it a pariah to millions of whites over the past 30 years who thought all the breaks were going to black people. This culminated in November's Republican sweep. It's easy for Newt Gingrich to be momentarily magnanimous from a political mountaintop, even as prepares to undo government anti-poverty programs.

Some in Washington took bows last week over new unemployment figures, which are not only down but indicate blacks are at last joining the general economic recovery. Glossed over: While black unemployment finally dipped below 10 percent (to 9.8), it's still more than double the national rate. And, among teens 16 to 19, white unemployment is 14.7 percent and black unemployment is 34.6.

These are the kids who imagine they have two choices: sling hamburgers for chump change or listen to the siren call of the dope dealers. To many of them, there seems no middle ground, no legitimate shot at joining the great middle class. And white Americans ask: Why penalize us? Don't we have our own problems?

(Absolutely. A marvelous PBS series, "America's War on Poverty," begins tomorrow night. It lays out a history of millions, black and white, living in squalor in a sea of prosperity, and lets us examine the stupidity and selfishness that allow it to continue.)

In Annapolis last week, Ellen R. Sauerbrey tried to overturn an election she might have won if she hadn't ignored Baltimore and Prince George's County during the campaign. Make a few appearances, she was urged. Give some sign that you care. Others warned: Don't. It'll send the wrong signal. Any appearance in Baltimore will say to conservative whites that you're kissing up to blacks.

So, instead of attempting to win their votes, she tried last week to take them away. Fraud, she cried. Fifty thousand votes stolen, she declared. Somehow, such things happened only in the jurisdictions she lost. Then the numbers evaporated inside a courtroom. Judge Raymond Thieme Jr., who acknowledged at week's end that he'd voted for Sauerbrey, threw the case out.

From the start, though, a sickening pattern emerged, back from those first days after the election, when Sauerbrey poll workers repeatedly challenged signatures. Were they really challenging

because signatures didn't match, as they claimed, or because they could look at home addresses and routinely question votes cast in black neighborhoods?

Martin Luther King died thinking many struggles remained, but he thought the right to vote had been won. He was murdered while working for some semblance of economic parity. But today, blacks still make up more than half the poor, though they're less than 20 percent of the population.

In the city of Baltimore, it is now a quarter-century since white people all but abandoned the public schools and were followed by many middle class blacks. What's left behind is a stepchild culture, kids whose education consists less of the stuff of classrooms than guns and drugs.

Only five city high schools sent more than 28 percent of their graduates to four-year colleges a year ago. The dropout rate's appallingly high. Where do you find work if you have no education? Answer: On the street. Two years ago, a study declared that 56 percent of black men in Baltimore 18 to 35 years old are under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson spent Christmas Day at Chicago's Cook County Jail, speaking to black inmates. He said some things Newt Gingrich might have applauded, which dealt not with civil rights, but civil wrongs.

"Our civil wrongs constitute the No. 1 threat to our progress," Jackson said. "The surrender to drugs, dropouts and violence, the abandoned families and alienated children are fueling the politics of fear, anger and repression. . . .

"How many of you have wives and children at home on welfare? Your child doesn't need welfare or an orphanage; your child needs a daddy and a mother at home. . . . The key to change is in your mind, in your heart. Malcolm turned a jail cell into a classroom. Racism didn't change for him; the job situation didn't change for him; the police didn't change. Nothing changed but him."

That's '90s rhetoric to rival King's "I have a dream" speech. It marks our sad era that, instead of hearing it delivered in the sunlight of the nation's capital, Jackson's audience had to be captive to hear it.

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