Seeking signs of hope for a post-pandemic world
"Where do we go from here?"
The question raised in the title of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s book is as apropos today as it was when it was released a year before his assassination in 1967. Perhaps more so.
Although the coronavirus is still with us, vaccines to combat it provide a hopeful glimmer of a post-COVID world. Yet, in its wake, African Americans will be left with the disproportionate health, economic, social and deadly ruins exacerbated by the global pandemic.
In 1965, when African Americans were battling the multiple epidemics of poverty, mass unemployment and segregation, King advocated a $50 billion federal plan, similar to the GI Bill, aimed at helping poor people rebuild and invest in their own communities. In a Playboy magazine Interview by writer Alex Haley, King argued such a plan would encourage Black people to stay and build in their own neighborhoods.
Flash forward 55 years later, and Black people are not only besieged by what King described as the “triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism,” but added to that calamitous concoction is the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black lives along with the ongoing threat of police brutality.
As hundreds of thousands of people across the nation gather to honor King’s memory is it also time to revisit his other dream of rebuilding Black America?
“Most definitely,” said Jessie Davis, owner of St. Louis-based JK’s Trucking, a freight company, and Davis Recycling, a scrap yard and recycling business. A couple years ago, Davis floated a proposal among a few aldermen and the mayor to create a program for young people and newly released prisoners. The idea was to use city funds to train employees for jobs, clean up their own neighborhoods and, in the process, learn recycling and trucking.
Although he received no useful follow-up from politicians, Davis said he still believes the idea not only has merit but it’s past time for implementation. A program like the one King proposed aimed at funding do-for-self efforts in metropolitan areas would be helpful, especially after the pandemic subsides.
“Local and federal funding would provide an opportunity to do grassroots projects like the one I offered. I’m not some guy from Chesterfield or west county,” Davis stressed. “I’m from this community and I'm trying to help.”
Miki Jones is president of AMJ Investment Group. Her company, in partnership with the city, Kwame Building Group and 21stt Ward Ald. John Collins-Muhammad, recently announced an $81 million plan, “The City District,” aimed at revitalizing 10 blocks in the O’Fallon Park Neighborhood in north St. Louis.
When asked about King’s 1965 plan, Jones answered with a quote from King:
“’Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes…’”
A federal plan like King's, she said, could bring much-needed opportunities to Black neighborhoods like O’Fallon Park.
“It’s a historical community full of potential — deserving opportunity for economic growth. It would provide the necessary financial resources for our community.”
King’s plan was based on federal support. In theory, however, federal funds would be managed and distributed through local governments.
St. Louis Treasurer, Tishaura O. Jones has demonstrated how city funds can impact disadvantaged lives. Using parking revenue, Jones launched the Office of Financial Empowerment’s College Kids Program which has helped more than 16,000 public school students set up college savings accounts.
“We need to help Black people meet their basic needs through universal basic income, health care, and stronger housing support. We also need to help be intentional about closing the wealth gap created by this country,” said Jones, who is also a candidate for mayor in the upcoming primary election.
In a 1967 Southern Leadership Conference speech titled, “Where do we go from here,” King outlined the possibilities inherent in his vision. Renovating deteriorating buildings, developing low-income housing and allowing “tenants the opportunity to own their own homes,” creating inner-city jobs, businesses and financial institutions were all topics in the speech.
Before those things can flourish, King said, we “must first honestly recognize where we are now.”
To Miki Jones, King’s words were a call for accountability.
"The City District is about taking direct responsibility for the economic development of the next generation of our city. I believe in a sense of collective responsibility among Black people of all ages and education levels.”
Mike Jones, former senior staffer in St. Louis and St. Louis County government, believes the aftereffects of COVID-19 call for drastic federal action. But, he said, there’s another prerequisite before adopting anything like King’s dream.
“The coronavirus has left us with depression level damage. So, post-COVID, we’re going to need the equivalent of a Marshall Plan (the post- World War II plan to stimulate economic growth in Europe). But, before we rush in with a solution, we should have a conversation.”
The “conversation” Jones proposes should be based on an honest assessment of the social and economic conditions Black people face now, since King’s death:
“We need to first have a discussion about what it is we’re trying to rebuild,” Jones said. “The Black economic base during Jim Crow was a function of us not having access to the general market. Well, what happens to that model when we have access to the general market?
“King’s idea is excellent, but the real question is what does that look like in 2021?”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.