Fifty years after King, Atlantans see a dream still deferred
how others see it
Five decades after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder, the hope of good jobs as salvation is today as promising – and as elusive – as in 1968. Interviews with African-Americans in his hometown show both resolve and worry that equality is a promise forever over the next hill.
Atlanta—Here at Stoney’s Barbershop on Atlanta's historic Edgewood Ave., Zeus Daniel, a soldier turned master barber, is carefully trimming neck lines as a Jay-Z tune spins low on the speakers and fellow barbers use strop-sharpened razors to pattern crisp beards.
Customers wait in an area designed to feel just like owner Jimmie Stone’s basement – low, slow, and welcoming. It has been nearly 50 years to the day since the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Atlanta’s most famous native son, was gunned down in Memphis, leading to a summer of racial riot and unrest across the United States.
The hope of good jobs as salvation is today as promising – and as elusive – as in 1968, when the post-assassination Kerner Report found institutional disparities at work in keeping African-Americans poor, underemployed, and disillusioned.
Before his assassination on April 4, 1968, King was in the process of launching the Poor People’s Campaign – a fight for economic equality that he planned to take to the White House.
“We fought here and all over from Selma right through the black belt of Alabama to get the right to vote. Now we are going to get the right to have three square meals a day. Now we are going to get the right to have a decent house to live in,” he said in a March 20 speech in Eutaw, Ala. “Now we are fighting for the right to get proper medical care. Now we are fighting for the right to have enough money to have our physical-medical examination every year. Now we are fighting for the right to be able to see our dentist every year. Now we are fighting for the right to get the basic necessities of life.”
An update of the report published in March found almost no significant gains in wealth or opportunity for black Americans compared with whites, save for educational attainment.
And a sweeping study of 20 million Americans now in their 30s, led by researchers at Stanford and Harvard University and the Census Bureau, found that black boys, even those raised in wealthy households, still go on to earn less money than white boys do, and are more likely to become poor as adult men. The Equality of Opportunity Project’s authors say the study, which shows that African-American boys do worse in 99 percent of America’s neighborhoods, shows the effect of racism, not class, in driving inequality in America.
Fifty years after King’s death, interviews with African-Americans in his hometown reveal that President Trump's unexpected 2016 victory on a wave of economic and racial discontent has left many feeling deflated and demoralized, stressed and scared – worried that equality is a promise forever over the next hill.
“There is an extreme amount of fear for lots of people of color, as well as heightened questions of worth and humanity,” says the Rev. Dominique Robinson, shortly after a fiery and joyous sermon at Shaw Temple, a historic black church in Smyrna, Ga.
At the same time, black Americans also exhibit a determination that traces all the way back to the Sea Islands, where the first African slaves were brought, which to this day embody the art of black survival and a communal resolve that has already survived centuries of white supremacist ideology.
For Trump, “it hasn't been a [racial] whistle but a howl,” says Carol Anderson, author of “White Rage.” In her view, the president has nationalized Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of exploiting ethnic or racial divisions by using code words and “cast the narrative that racism was over,” while implying “that there was something culturally pathological about black people.”
“This trolling of blackness, this is a whistle to his constituency that he is about putting black folks in their place – that's what this is,” she says.
That’s why across the diaspora, black reaction to Trump “comes out of these incredible familial and friendship networks [in the black community] that help you understand America and help you understand how you succeed in a place that enslaved your ancestors,” says Professor Anderson, who studies the intersection of race and policy at Emory University in Atlanta. “You cannot emerge from that without resolve. And we will come out of this with resolve.”
A minority of black Americans, like Mr. Daniel, say they are looking beyond the president’s radical statements on race and are focused on taking care of business.
Having just moved here from California, Daniel knows that Atlanta remains a bright spot for black America, where deep economic inequalities have also made way for a blossoming black middle class and a powerful black political class that leads a global powerhouse city. As it always has, the black barbershop holds a unique place in the social fabric of the city.
For his part, Trump described Atlanta as “horrible” and “crime-infested” in a spat with Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a Freedom Rider who led the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights – and suffered a fractured skull during a police attack. The war of words with the civil rights icon was one of numerous clashes between the president and notable black Americans, from war widows to lawmakers.
But such Trumpian outbursts, Daniel says, are just a play for a racial stalemate that benefits only the political parties.
What really matters, he argues, is Trump’s focus on the economy, including tax cuts and rolling back regulations that help both large and small businesspeople. Such moves can uniquely help minority entrepreneurs. The Kauffman Foundation found in 2015 that 40 percent of entrepreneurial enterprises were minority-owned, compared with only 23 percent two decades earlier.
Daniel has also started a small company, PEACE, aimed at selling inspiring merchandise to Millennials.
“From [Trump's] radical speeches, that's just his opinion,” he says. “But business-wise he is a great man, and he allows you to be better for your own self. If you are only looking into the negative you are going to stay still and that is where you are going to be at. But [Trump] gave me motivation to do for myself. He lets you know you can change your aspect around.”
By screwing up their eyes at his cheerleading, Daniel’s barbershop friends suggest the young entrepreneur may be too willing to let Trump off the hook for presidential behavior that the Kerner follow-up report labels “racist” – a view held by 57 percent of Americans, according to an Associated Press poll.
But when it comes to the role of economics over politics in building racial equality in the US, Daniel may have a point. The last sustained era of economic progress for black Americans was the late-1990s economic boom, when unemployment hit rock bottom. “The most important policy [to reduce racial inequality] is to maintain a very tight economy,” writes Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-prize winning economist at Columbia University, who wrote the Kerner Report update. “The benefits of this and the growth that it brings about far outweigh any deficits that might be experienced to support it or any inflation that might be engendered.”
The report cites a government shift from fighting a war on poverty in the 1960s to the war on drugs in the 1980s as inflaming racial rancor and braking progress.
In that vein, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has re-focused attention on mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and other policies, such as civil forfeiture for people even suspected of crimes, that many critics say is a throwback to policies that fell hardest on black males, and which have in the past reverberated hardest through the black community.
Stephon Clark was just buried last week in Sacramento, Calif., and US police continue to kill black men at higher rates than whites. But the number of unarmed black men killed has dropped in the wake of increasingly ubiquitous body cams and justice reforms initiated by the Obama Department of Justice. Those gains are now in flux, some policing experts say, as the Trump administration reels back oversight of police departments.
“What the election has brought to bear is how the attorney general has all these ... reaches and influences that can then shape the conversation,” says Robert Patterson, chair of Georgetown University’s Department of African American Studies, in Washington. “It is important to make visible and clear how these things that people take for granted as being detached from government are very much tied to the government. And it is invisibility that makes this power even stronger.”
There is “an argument that people who voted for Trump divorced his economic message from his xenophobia,” says Patterson. “They actually did not divorce it from that. They made a couple of different choices that are subtle, but that in essence reflect how racism and economics are constituted by each other.”
But for some economists, that frustration with government prescriptions may itself be shortsighted. After all, they argue, the free market offers black Americans the potential for the greatest gains – particularly as it forces employers to take a fresh look at marginalized workers and, in the process, confront and perhaps overcome stereotypes.
Shaw Temple straddles two worlds.
A beacon of faith and revival in suburban Smyrna, the church began in Atlanta’s historic black downtown. Today, half of the congregation is drawn from poorer parts of urban Atlanta, the other part from wealthier suburbs of Cobb County.
On a rainy Sunday morning, Shaw’s congregation is swaying as the youth chorus sings a beat-driven hymn. In the midst of it, the Rev. Eldren Morrison rises and claps. The service ends with a guest preacher exhorting financial advice to the flock, including: “Thou shalt not touch your IRA!”
After the service, Mr. Morrison says the Trump era has sparked emotions ranging from despair to determination in his flock.
For some, it is a moment of frustration: an uptick in both coded and not-so-coded words, a sense of racism unleashed and Jim Crow attitudes reborn. Over the past year, African-Americans say they have endured an uncommon barrage on their citizenship – not only an outright rejection of the first black president, but torch-bearing for ideas that in some ways reject black identity, history, and citizenship.
“I don’t see outrage [in the black community], I see unrest,” says Morrison. “We hear what you are saying, but we hear what you are saying. We see you. The people know the truth.”
At the same time, he notes, he has never seen his congregation so galvanized. His aide-de-camp, Andrew Weber, is pondering a run for state office after running campaigns in New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.
He has watched as Atlanta and New Orleans rise, and as black women, especially, have taken on a leadership mantle, now running 17 US cities.
Only a single-digit percentage of black voters supported Trump, but they nevertheless failed to come out for Hillary Clinton in 2016 as they did for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In that way, black voters may have proven as instrumental in the 107,000 vote swing that put Trump in the White House as white Obama voters who flipped to Trump in the Midwest.
Since then, black voters – especially black women – have made the difference in swinging hotly contested elections in Virginia and Alabama, including forming the decisive voting bloc that elected Doug Jones over Roy Moore for the Senate.
“It is almost like a scale where you weigh your priorities: You have economics here and you have morals and values there,” says the Rev. Kristen Berry. “And some African-Americans, honestly, are probably leaning more toward the economic. Myself, I look more so at the overall message of the leader. Yes, we pray that our paychecks will increase and that taxes will be good to us when we file. But most of us look at the overall character of the leader: Does this person really have America’s best interests at heart?”
A King quote is posted on a wall, over her shoulder: “Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.”