James E. Causey Jan. 14, 2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed a year before I was born, but I’ve always felt like he was a part of my family.
Today, his picture still hangs on my parents’ living room wall because King provided many African-American families with hope.
Many of the problems King cited in his April 16, 1963, letter from the Birmingham City Jail still exist in Milwaukee today.
I would even say that 2012 Milwaukee mirrors 1963 Birmingham in a lot of ways.
Milwaukee leads the nation or ranks near the top in several negative categories for African-Americans. Many of the problems are amplified by the city’s hypersegregation, high black male unemployment and 50% dropout rate for African-American boys.
Sunday is King’s birthday (Monday is the federal holiday observing his birth). The slain civil rights leader would have been 83. If he were alive, there is no doubt he would have visited Milwaukee to address its similarities to Birmingham.
He would have addressed:
Segregation: In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, King wrote: “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”
In 2011, Milwaukee earned that dubious distinction.
There are many reasons 90% of the African-American population lives on the city’s north side. Some of the reasons stem from race and economics, but you can’t rule out factors such as suburban opposition to affordable housing, either. In New Berlin, for example, it took a federal lawsuit to get the city to rethink a workforce housing development.
The assertion that “people live where they feel comfortable” is not an excuse for the city’s hypersegregation. Race is more complicated than that. If King were alive, he would point out that segregated neighborhoods are not only bad for the health of adults; they are also unhealthy for our nation’s youngest citizens – our children.
Voting: Wisconsin voters this year could be voting in a recall of the governor, president of the United States and any number of key races that will impact them.
In December, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit stating that Wisconsin’s voter ID law “imposes a severe and undue burden on the fundamental right to vote under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
Their biggest fear is that the law will essentially disenfranchise poor blacks, Hispanics, elderly and first-time voters from having a say in what could be tightly contested races.
In his letter, King wrote: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.” King would have fought any laws restricting one’s right to vote.
I also believe King would have been more proactive by encouraging churches to get involved with the communities they are supposed to serve and register to vote those who are the hardest to reach.
Nationally syndicated radio host Joe Madison agreed.
Madison, who was active in the civil rights movement when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, told me that black organizations can best honor King on Monday by taking his holiday “beyond the mall.”
“It’s nice to be off on Monday to celebrate King’s legacy, but we can’t just use that as a day off. Monday should be a call-to-action day,” Madison said.
Black churches and organizations should canvas neighborhoods that will be affected the most by the voter ID law.
The best gift that these groups can give to the people of these communities is a voter registration card. Let’s make sure that everyone who can vote is registered to have his or her vote and voice heard.
Poverty: The grip of poverty got even tighter in Milwaukee in 2011 with nearly 30% of its residents labeled as poor. Nearly half of the city’s children were listed as poor.
In King’s letter, he said it’s hard to understand why “20 million Negro brothers (are) smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”
It starts with family-supporting jobs, but elected leaders must have the will and creativity to change the city’s status quo. Milwaukee should not be the new Birmingham.
For those who don’t believe this is their problem, King said it best: “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Think about that, and happy birthday, Dr. King.