Editor’s Note: Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank, was the keynote speaker for Michigan State University’s 20th Dr. William G. Anderson Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey Lecture Series, held Thursday, February 27, 2020 at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center. Below is the full text of the speech he delivered in East Lansing titled: “Black Lamentations: The Redemptive Need for Healing in American Democracy.” Thompson is a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News, and the host of REDLINE, a daily show on 910AM Super Station-Detroit, which airs from 11am-1pm.
Thank you Dr. William G. Anderson for the generous introduction. I am happy to join you and the entire Michigan State University community and beyond this evening for the closing lecture of the 20th Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey Series. When Dr. Anderson called me last October, asking that I consider coming to Michigan State University to deliver the keynote address for the Slavery to Freedom Series, I told him that it would be my honor to do so. He quickly retorted and said, it was his honor that I was willing to readily accept this invitation.
Given the speakers who have preceded me here this evening from Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis, elder civil rights statesman Harry Belafonte, to Dr. Evelyn Higginbotham, chair of the History Department at Harvard University, I consider it a great honor to share this stage with men and women who have been pacesetters in the struggle for justice and equality in our democratic experience, including some of the most distinguished leaders and prognosticators in the modern era.
That underscores the significance and reach of the Slavery to Freedom series rightfully named after Dr. Anderson, who himself is a giant in the Civil Rights Movement, in light of the important role he played as leader of the Albany Movement in Georgia. If you read the pages of history, you will discover a watershed moment in the history of the Albany Movement, when Dr. Anderson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev Ralph Abernathy together held a July 12, 1962 press conference to impress upon the city of Albany a list of demands against racist laws after being released from jail. All three men – Anderson, King and Abernathy did not budge but remained firm on their demands, and at one point during the press conference, King, reminded the reporters that Anderson was eloquent enough to explain the mission of the Albany Movement.
Dr. Anderson, as an elder in the beloved community of justice, we thank you for your courageous service and for the work that you and countless others – including the nameless and faceless heroes- of the Civil Rights Movement– have done in guaranteeing the freedoms we so cherished today.
The legacy of the work of the elders of civil rights must be kept alive for generations to come. They must see through it living examples of courage and fortitude to emulate. In fact, last month, I was talking to my good friend Dr. Bernard Lafayette, who was the National Coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign under Dr. King. Lafayette, and I were visiting over the phone after the devastating news that Congressman Lewis had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
As we spoke, he shared with me that he and Lewis were college roommates at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, and he went to relay a conversation he had days earlier with Dr. James Lawson, another civil rights veteran as they reflected on the battles they fought together. Toward the end of our conversation, I told Dr. Lafayette, that such conversations no matter how casual should be recorded because they are a living testament to the tenacity and persistence of one of the most important movements for justice in human history.
The history of the Civil Rights Movement and its gallant soldiers must not be buried. It must continue to be taught. The history of the cruel institution of slavery must not be forgotten. The impact of its damaging effects throughout the centuries must be told to generations yet unborn. That is why this series pioneered by Dr. Anderson, is important in conveying the substance of our difficulties and the challenges we face in the quest for equality to the next generation.
I come here today because the mandate of history and the verdict of my conscience leave me no other choice because black life in this dispensation, and the demand for total freedom from the vestiges of Jim Crow, must be thoroughly examined through the lens of a bitter and heart-wrenching pilgrimage that started when the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619.
As James Weldon Johnson, the anthologist of black culture noted in Lift Every Voice and Sing:
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered…
The road that leads me to East Lansing this evening is fraught with many unanswered but fundamental questions. The road is long and bumpy with penetrating questions that strike at the very heart of our existence as black people, and the blatant contradictions of the democracy we live in. In other words, how this democracy has failed a race of people who were taken from their home, and brought here to build this nation against their will with brutality and without compensation. That is why when we think about our democratic experiment we must ponder upon the following questions:
What does democracy mean in an America where despite the removal of physical chains, blacks are still wearing the economic and political chains of oppression?
What does freedom mean in an America where despite measured progress among few, blacks are still languishing at the bottom of the tight and unbearable socioeconomic ship with no breathing room?
What does democracy mean when a 12-year-old black boy Tamir Rice from Cleveland can be shot to death by a white police officer for simply holding a toy gun?
What does freedom mean when a 15-year-old black boy Damon Grimes from Detroit can die at the hands of a white Michigan State trooper for simply riding an ATV?
Dr. Anderson, I come here this evening because I believe strongly that black lives matter. That we must confront the oppressed social conditions that blacks face, and there shouldn’t be any limitation to the possibilities of the freedoms that we seek. In fact it was Langston Hughes who reminded us in that eloquent Freedom Poem:
Freedom will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
This insistence on freedom was indeed the calling and mission of Frederick Douglass, who became a prophet of freedom. Douglass, powerfully triumphed over his own enslavement by forcefully representing the brilliance and conveying the agony of the black race. He once declared to the chagrin of our national conscience: “I deny that the black man’s degradation is essential to the white man’s elevation.”
A statement loaded with pain and a vociferous defense of black life, Douglass, understood that he needed to challenge the disgraceful and immoral concept of “property in man,” which laid the foundation for the principles of racial superiority.
James Baldwin conveyed that reality when he wrote, “The white man’s heaven, is the black man’s hell,” expressing a fundamental truism of the existential suffering of blacks in a world that continues to make them invisible and inferior.
Ralph Ellison felt that pain when he cried out in Invisible Man: “They see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
And Ida B. Wells documented the pain and terror that black life has been subjected to when she wrote in “Lynch Law in America” that, “Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.”
In fact, a Michigan State University student, recently confronted the horror of the memory of lynching when she discovered black dolls depicting black historical figures hanging from a tree inside the Wharton Center for Performing Arts gift shop. This was profoundly unacceptable, and it underscores the need to have real discussions about how our public universities can become effective anchors of racial equality.
These are the pains that have been handed down from one generation to another with no resolution, and no proper acknowledgement of the underlying critical issues that have rendered black communities across this nation as deserts of hopelessness, rivers of tribulation, minefields of subjugation, enclaves of despair and an ecosystem of despondency.
As a writer who captures both the black progress and the black agony as part of the larger human experience, these are the black lamentations that cry out for the need for a redemptive healing in our democracy.
As this series is so aptly titled, From Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey, there can be no definition of American progress in this democratic experiment without black progress stemming from the full blown recognition of the need to heal the wounds of slavery that still persists with us today.
Slavery is the most heinous crime ever recorded in human history. American slavery has been a scourge on human history, and has remained a permanent scar on not only our national psyche, but has given birth to many inequities for over four centuries. It’s legacies still have enormous impact on black life in America today because black children growing up now are viewed through the lens of a class that never viewed their humanity as a basic human right. Until this inhumanity is fully corrected, black children will have mountain difficulties elevating to the pinnacle of American society.
That is why blacks cannot escape the threat of police brutality, which evolved from the slave patrols as a means to unjustifiably control black life.
That is why blacks cannot escape the stench of inequality because black life from the foundation of this nation, has been rendered meaningless and reduced to nothing but a profit making machine as Roger B. Taney, the former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, declared in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Case that blacks, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.”
This was the preeminent validation of white supremacist ideology that permeated throughout every facet and institution of American society, regardless of the socioeconomic status of individual blacks, some of whom thought that their upward social mobility freed them from the effects of racism, and enabled them to cross the Rubicon with grace and dignity.
The stories of lamentations are well documented about how generations of black men, not sparing even the most accomplished professionals, were often referred to as “boys,” an effort to deliberately decimate their manhood, or quickly mistaken for their assumed subservience.
In his book, Crusader for Justice, the late Damon Jerome Keith, former Senior Judge of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and one of the most brilliant minds to ever sit at the pinnacle of American jurisprudence, painfully recalled how he was openly and racially humiliated during a conference standing in front of a hotel with another fellow judge as they were getting ready to attend a lunch meeting.
“As they stood there, a dark car pulled up and a hotel guest stepped out. The middle-aged man in a business suit assumed the short black man (Judge Keith) he saw was a porter and he tossed Judge Keith his keys, barking, “Here boy, park this car! Judge Keith was hardly a porter and at 69 years-old, hardly a “boy.”
This is another reason why black life cannot escape the shame and the pain of the legacy of slavery, unless we are willing to confront the truth about the damning and continuing effects of the institution of slavery. In so doing, we must also accept another fact: black life cannot escape economic exclusion.
A cursory examination of the many reports that were produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission, concluded that blacks are still behind in socioeconomic advancement when compared to other groups. Even black children being raised in middle class families today, are going to have a very difficult time obtaining a bright economic future, largely because of their race and the fact that the playing field is still unequal.
For example, the Economic Policy Institute, offered this 2018 damning assessment of black life: “With respect to homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration, America has failed to deliver any progress for African Americans over the last five decades. In these areas, their situation has either failed to improve relative to whites or has worsened. In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is currently more than six times the white incarceration rate.”
Another reality we must confront is that America thrives on the notion that the color of your skin still dictates your worth in society, and regardless of your achievements, you are still categorized by the perceived limitations of your race. As a chronicler of the black experience, my email is flooded with vitriolic messages constantly insisting why my columns in The Detroit News are laden with racial analysis that indict the political and racial hierarchy found in both the conservative and white liberal establishments of the day.
In receiving these emails, I realize the rarity of black voices occupying the prestigious spaces of opinion journalism including mine as the only black opinion columnist in Detroit. The opinions I express twice-a-week in the pages of The Detroit News, that Eugene Robinson expresses twice-a-week in the pages of The Washington Post, that Charles Blow expresses twice-a-week in the pages of The New York Times, and Leonard Pitts expresses in the pages of the Miami Herald are important viewpoints that are necessary to check the menace of American democracy, and to affirm the existence of black humanity.
This dual role that columnists like us are called upon to play is significant at a time when our nation is going through a second racial reconstruction. Our perspective about this racial reconstruction, and what it portends for the future of this democracy, and black America cannot be dismissed in the same way that black participation in the recovery of Detroit is being minimized.
Freedom and equality for black people in America in 2020, cannot be discussed outside of Detroit, the largest black city, which is currently going through an economic reconstruction. The recovery which has been heralded in national reviews as an American rebirth, is taking place at the expense of its majority black residents who contributed more to the socioeconomic and cultural fabric of the city than they are now receiving.
Just like in slavery, when blacks toiled the fields to build the white man’s wealth, longtime black residents of Detroit that have kept the city afloat are now being sidelined from the benefits of the economic recovery that favor their white counterparts, who enjoy more employment opportunities, and more access to local and federal contracting opportunities in the downtown and Midtown areas. I have repeatedly called these areas of concentrated wealth as islands of opulence that are thriving at the expense of the blood and sweat of black people who gave all to their beloved city.
It should not be lost on any of us that we are talking about the largest black city in the nation, a city that should be the conscience and model for racial equality for other black cities. But it is not.
In fact, I recently reminded an audience of mostly white male power brokers and business men at the Detroit Athletic Club (DAC), the premier social club for the political and economic elites in southeast Michigan, that Detroit is the epicenter of economic inequality. That the recovery is disgracefully uneven.
I warned the DAC audience that regardless of our social standing, all of us have an obligation to ensure that the much heralded recovery spreads across the entire city because there are many Detroiters, who remain invisible to the skyscrapers and glitzy buildings that symbolically represent Mayor Mike Duggan’s recovery.
Either we define an economic blueprint for black equality in Detroit or we focus on building more Taj Mahals in downtown.
I hear the lamentations of numerous black contractors who in previous administrations built their companies with equitable distribution of contracting dollars, but during this recovery under Mayor Mike Duggan, the first white mayor in 40 years, found themselves subjected to new rules that virtually shut them out of these same previous opportunities.
Mayor Duggan, has a penchant for deferring to existing law as to why he cannot go the extra mile to grant economic freedom to black entrepreneurs, who feel shut out. But Dr. Anderson, just as slavery was legal, it was also profoundly immoral and that laid the groundwork for today’s age to move beyond legality into the need for morality and basic fairness.
“When the federal government gives you money, the feds consider it to be the money of all taxpayers in the country. So no federal program allows you to have local preferences. Our team is following the federal rules and we have no legal ability to offer local preference,” Duggan told The Detroit News explaining why he can’t do much about helping black contractors.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would vehemently disagree with Mayor Duggan because he noted that sometimes we must move beyond the realm of constitutional rights and limitations to the arena of human rights and morality.
I hear the lamentations from black Detroiters who believe that the economic recovery in this great American city, is nothing but a gentrifying attempt to chip away at the longstanding black security and stability of the city. I recall moderating a town hall at Calvary Baptist Church with 400 black Detroit retirees, who suffered from the municipal bankruptcy, and many of them in their old age are living without reliable health insurance and the requisite benefits despite having worked for the city for decades. They see themselves being punished by this economic recovery rather than benefiting from it.
To them and many others, the economic revitalization taking place in America’s largest black city represents an apparent racial oligarchy. This blazing reality of life in Detroit for many who are cut out of the economic engines of prosperity, and upper mobility has forced some in a city once known as the Mecca for black America to ask the following Socratic questions:
Must Detroit’s rise to high levels of economic self-sufficiency be determined by the hands of oligarchs, and a loose confederation of bosses or by the will of the people, the nerve center of democracy?
Must the majority of Detroiters and their future continue to be at the mercy of the political elites who demand a very slow and take-it-easy walk to economic freedom, while they champion the interests of a powerful and privileged few with all deliberate speed?
Former President Lyndon Johnson, a white liberal politician understood what Detroit’s Duggan, another white liberal politician did not understand.
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, President Johnson went to Howard University in June of 1965 and decreed a new era of equality.
“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result,” Johnson told the graduates at Howard.
After that seminal speech, Johnson’s administration led off with the groundbreaking Executive Order 11246 that established mandates for non-discriminatory practices in hiring and employment. Johnson knew he was standing on the crucible of history, and he rightfully responded to the cries of blacks that for centuries fell on deaf ears.
That quest for economic parity that Johnson understood is still true today, and is desperately needed in Duggan’s Detroit especially after a recent Detroit News investigation revealed that homeowners were overtaxed by $600 million from 2010-2016 including some houses that were foreclosed upon during the foreclosure crisis. Despite the city’s own admission that it was culpable in this effort, the mayor, who was first elected in 2013, has virtually done nothing to address the issue that has angered many black people because black wealth has always been tied to home ownership. Instead, during his Tuesday night State of the City address, Duggan brushed it aside, took no responsibility of this level of economic assault on black Detroiters, and acted like nothing happened when several years of the over-assessment happened under his watch from 2013-2016. This latest $600 million homeownership scandal unraveling in Detroit that has triggered community forums all across the city represents the persistent economic inequality in America today.
In the book “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith writes: “Whenever there is great prosperity there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.”
Detroit, one of the largest poverty cities in the nation exemplifies Adam Smith’s prognosis of the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the fact that national wealth doesn’t necessarily bring an end to mass economic desolation.
But it is not only Detroit that is suffocating from the stench of inequality. Benton Harbor, the smallest black city in the state, is also struggling to define what freedom means in the midst of grinding poverty. In fact, the crisis of Benton Harbor, a city virtually left to die with a majority white police department that mirrors that of the Ferguson police department, and doomed for eternity, took prominence last year when another white liberal politician, and the chief executive of this state Governor Gretchen Whitmer tried to shut down the only high school in that impoverished black city as a remedy to the urban educational crisis. This asinine move by a white liberal governor exposed the dangers and the consequences of an uneducated understanding about the nexus between race and educational inequality in America.
Alarmed by this callous indifference to shut down Benton Harbor’s only high school, Dr. Anderson, I traveled to Benton Harbor and spent days in this southwestern corner of the state listening to the lamentations of the people of this tiny black city, who have refused to let their spirits be broken. I sat down with some members of that community including the Rev Edward Pinkney, a man who for years courageously stood up to seemingly vulture developers. Out of Benton Harbor, I wrote seven columns conveying the lamentations of a distressed and broken city that needs healing and protection by summoning the moral conscience of Whitmer to stand down, and not proceed with a wrong-headed plan to bury a city that has known nothing but decades of economic and social disinvestments.
When the governor finally backed off her plan that was already endorsed by the white liberal Michigan Education Association, to shut down Benton Harbor High School, the only remaining educational institution in that city, it revealed a disturbing paradox in history about the hypocrisy of white liberal politics that insist it supports true racial equality when dealing with black communities.
Black lamentations and the need for healing in American democracy requires that we demand that white liberals stop playing games with black lives.
In his final testament, “Where Do We Go From Here,” Dr. King bemoaned liberal politics:
“The white liberal must see that the negro needs not only love but also justice. It is not enough to say, ‘we love negroes, we have many negro friends.’ They must demand justice for negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely sentimental affection, little more than what one would have for a pet. Love at its best is justice concretized. Love is unconditional. It is not conditional upon one’s staying in his place or watering down his demands in order to be considered respectable. The white liberal must affirm that absolute justice for the negro simply means that the negro must have his due. There is nothing abstract about this. It is as concrete as having a good job, a good education, a decent house and a share of power.”
But liberals are not alone in these gamesmanship as well. In an address at Howard University Law School, the late Derrick Bell, the first black tenured professor at Harvard University Law School, bemoaned conservative politics :
“Conservative white politicians are able to gain and hold even the highest office despite their failure to address seriously any of these issues. They rely instead on the time tested formula of getting needy whites to identify on the basis of their shared skin color, suggesting with little or no subtlety that as “white people, we must stand together against the Willie Hortons, racial quotas, or affirmative action.”
Bell goes on to say that, “The code words differ. The message is the same. Whites are rallied on the basis of racial pride and patriotism to accept their often lowly lot in life and vent their frustration by opposing any serious advancement by blacks. It works every time. It worked when rich slave owners convinced the white working class to stand with them against the danger of slave revolts – even though the existence of slavery condemned white workers to a life of economic deprivation. It worked after the Civil War when poor whites fought social reforms and settled for segregation rather than see those formerly enslaved blacks get ahead. It worked when most labor unions preferred to allow the plant owners to break their strikes with black scab labor rather than allow blacks to join their unions.”
As I conclude my remarks this evening Dr. Anderson, I want us to take a quick journey to Douglass’ 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.”
Douglass declared, “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”
It’s been 168 years since Douglass gave that speech, and it is still relevant today, especially in the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, where we are witnessing what I described in one of my columns as “blatant hypocrisies, non-committal attitudes and dastardly political maneuverings,” designed to get black support at all cost.
The long walk to freedom that blacks have embarked upon since slavery now requires both conservatives and liberals, to bring a healing balm to the table of equity and justice. No longer must blacks settle for empty promises and sterile passivity that holds black progress hostage.
There is an undying need for healing in our democracy because as Dr. King reminded us that, “Emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the negro to “lift himself by his own bootstraps”, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own boot straps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”