Katrina reminds us that the civil rights struggle is not over


With the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, who can forget how that disaster made poverty real in American again? How it underscored our nation’s need to erase the economic disparities that exist between whites and minorities?

For some Americans, it was pictures on a television screen. For me, it was family members and neighbors stranded on roofs in makeshift floating devices, turned-over refrigerators.

I could rattle off tomes of statistics about disparity. I could talk about the wealth gap, the job gap, the wage gap and the health gap. I could speak in erudite and intellectual terms about income, health and equality in America. But I don’t have to: Katrina did that for me through images of people suffering. It was through reality’s lens that Americans witnessed the tragedy not through a full-length movie or cheap sound bite.

But the images seen on most Americans’ television sets nearly a year ago were not just pictures of my hometown. They represented people in poverty in urban areas all over the nation. And while they are mostly people of color, they are not exclusively people of color. One of every 10 white Americans and one of four black Americans live in poverty.

That’s why it is important to discuss and define the future of civil rights in the United States because the idea of expanding the American dream and table to everyone is as relevant in 2006 as it was 40 years ago.

The fight to sit at a lunch counter was an important fight. The fight to be able to afford what was served at the lunch counter is an even more important fight today. And the fight to own the lunch counter is the civil rights struggle of the 21st century.

We in the African-American community must focus anew on income and equality and poverty. It is indeed the calling of our generation of Americans – black, white, brown, yellow. We must build a new America, new cities, a new frontier and a new society. We cannot afford another Katrina to expose our nation’s dirty little secret – poverty.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream still inspires our work but it is painful to see this abyss dividing people. Since 2000, the relative wages and earnings of middle- and lower-income Americans have simply not gotten better. You may believe that you’ve arrived. You may have a job and a car and still be struggling with your bills or that mortgage for your American dream home. This is the face of America in 2006.

I am not one to believe that the glass is half empty. Because ever since Dr. King eloquently preached profound ideas that inspired a generation to action, our community has made important progress. But Dr. King always said problems do not solve themselves. It takes action, a plan and leadership to make things happen.

In his last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King referenced the gospel of St. Mark in saying whoever wants to become great must be a servant. He spoke of the drum major instinct – or the capacity, desire, DNA that we all possess to be at the front of the parade and not behind it. But he also warned it could be very destructive. It could lead to a search for status. It could lead to a selfish notion that what we need is for us. It could lead to the idea that we are better than others.

Dr. King advocated harnessing the drum major instinct to serve and to do something good. But in the 21st century, this means more than programs. It means public policy. It means building new partnerships. It means that we must become stronger and more visible community leaders. It means that we must be drum majors in the suites and on the streets.

I’m going to ask you to join me in a new campaign to end poverty and build wealth in America. This fall, the National Urban League will launch an economic empowerment tour. We are going to bring our message of jobs and housing, business development and financial literacy to communities across the nation. We’re going to hold town hall meetings and have workshops.

We also want to drive home the message that closing the economic divide is not simply about what someone else will do for us. It is what we do for ourselves. In 1975, the National Urban League released policy proposals on issues – ranging from transportation to workforce development to housing and community development – at its annual conference in Atlanta, the same city that hosted our 2006 conference last month.

This is what we must do in the 21st century if we hope to have a lasting and substantial impact on the public policy debate. We’re going to seek new thoughts, new ideas and new ways to achieve financial equality. Now is the time to close the economic divide. Now is the time to ensure that affordable housing is not a notion or emotion but a reality for everyone. Now is the time to ensure that every child gets a good education in a safe classroom. Now is the time for all of us to understand that to be full participants in the free enterprise system we must: not only be consumers but producers; not only be renters but owners; and not only be stockholders but people with estate plans. We must be prepared to leave something for the next generation.

You don’t need your Ph.D. You don’t need your J.D. You don’t need a stock portfolio. You don’t need a safe and secure job. All you need is a good heart and a good attitude. Will you be the drum major of the 21st century?