No blog that tries to address issues in the urban core can let Martin Luther King, Jr. Day pass without a deliberate salute to a man who dedicated his life to improving keystone images in an Urban Semiotic.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Here are some of the articles — along with a short quote from each —
I wrote over the past year that, I hope, reflect a shared sense of
mission with the legacy of Dr. King’s teaching…Paved Plantations:

Modern day colonies, Dr. King argued, were really prisons
where people did not possess free will and they were actually
indentured servants to masters who lived in faraway lands. Dr. King
went on to link up the argument that major modern American urban cores
like Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles, and Detroit
were not cities in their own right but were really modern day Urban
Colonies where inhabitants were still beholden to slavery and who were
still manipulated by masters far from their neighborhoods.

Nigger Tax:

I was schooled in this several years ago by a young Black
man in the Bronx, New York. He taught me why being perceived and
labeled a Nigger doesn’t always have to do with the color of
your skin but it has everything to do with power and an attempt to
enforce obedience. Adding the Tax rubs a little salt in the wound.

Malcolm X:

The most interesting idea brought to bear during the one
hour television presentation was the idea that those who were
responsible for Malcolm X’s death could not find the courage or
the heart to rise up and strike the KKK or the White Citizens’
Council but they could find the heart to murder Malcolm X.

King Korn Karnival:

If you dare to visit the Imperial Klans of America –
Knights of the Ku Klux Klan website and scroll down to the bottom of
the page you will see comment is spelled Komment and corner is spelled Korner. It is the tradition of the KKK to
replace a C with a K and, like it or not, that is precisely
what the King Korn Karnival is imitating.

Virtual Plantations:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about Paved Plantations
and how a slavery mentality moved from the fields and into the cities.
I wonder if there is another sea change bobbing on the horizon where
Virtual Plantations will one day be the new prison for disenfranchised
communities.

Urban Wilds:

Suburbia is a perfect example of this sort of lazying
out from the city core – but what happens when suburban areas become
tighter and paved and they transmogrify into Megalopolises as
geographer Jean Gottmann suggested in 1961 or the ever-infringing Edge City as Joel Garreau described in his 1991 monograph of the
same name.

I will leave you with the writing of Dr. King from his famous and still beautifully damming, Letter from Birmingham Jail:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our
constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are
moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we
stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a
lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the
stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.”

But when you have seen
vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your
sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen
curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see
the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in
an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when
you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you
seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the
public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and
see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is
closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority
beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to
distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward
white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old
son who is asking:

“Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so
mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to
sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile
because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and
day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first
name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you
are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are
never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and
haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at
tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued
with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a
degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find
it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs
over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of
despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and
unavoidable impatience.

Have we come far enough and made enough changes since Dr. King wrote that letter in 1963?

29 Comments

  1. Look at the homeschooling trend you wrote about because it is about running away from integration and variety in the student body.
    School vouchers also have a negative twist on Dr. King’s teachings because they allow even more separation with government help.

  2. I’m not sure we can go back to that time without another Dr. King to lead us there. The current conservative government and supreme court won’t help. Churches can help but they are not all socially integrated as much as they used to be. Public Schools are the way to get there but they are dying and being left to the ghetto children and the middle class poor.

  3. Do we ever really learn from the past so we don’t repeat previous mistakes?
    You have to keep going, trying, repeating, succeeding and then do it all over again. Progress comes in fitful starts not giant leaps.

  4. A beautiful man, a genius that the country is still not ready to listen to. King’s indictment of society pertained not only to race relations as many people remeber him for, but as David touched upon in his excerpts, a spectrum of issues that still grip the urban core and our society at large. King’s words bare the ugly truths of American society that we continue to stuggle with: poverty, an entrenched military-industrial complex, segregation of urban schools, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in real estate and the place of work. A quick tour through any urban core will reveal that these facets of American life that King struggled against are sadly alive and well. Segregation,discrimination and disenfranchisement occur along economic lines, which historically parallel racial ones. The de facto nature makes it all the more insidious and difficult to combat; as a society, we have chosen to nod our heads in sadness than put them together for sustainable change.

  5. I agree that in many ways while we’ve come far, we still need to keep working as hard as we can to continue to create a society where people won’t be judged for the color of their skin.
    We are moving back toward segregation. It isn’t enforced by the government, but we are doing it on our own. Look at the popularity of “gated” communities in some places. Look at the rapid development further and further away from the “dangers” of the urban core.
    Look at our cities and towns and you’ll see that people are not living together as they should be. There are “good parts of town” and “bad parts of town” that never seem to get the city services they deserve and always look less well kept than the more influencial neighborhoods.
    Inner city school systems are graduating kids who can’t read, while suburban and richer schools have great test scores and college entrance rates. Schools should be turning out people who can think and read, no matter their social or economic status.
    In some areas of America’s urban core, there are no jobs, except for the underground economy that strangles everyone it touches. Most of the people caught in its death grip are poor and minority.
    While we’ve come far, we still need to go further to reach out to those in need and to let them fully experience the American dream.

  6. Chris —
    I agree with you — now tell us how we get out of this mess!
    We can’t have gated communities unless the local municipalities allow them to be built and enforced.
    We have always had the rich and the poor in America, but when did that financial line change from one of the color of money to the color of skin?
    Why are the public schools so broken that they move along children who are so broken that they cannot read and write and really have no greater hope of gaining any sort of upward-moving job track?
    How can we bring back jobs to the urban core and give them to people to really need employment and then convince them it is better to have a job than to not have one?

  7. Bringing good schools and good jobs back to the urban core is the key to bringing prosperity to everyone.
    In some ways, the urban core has fallen so far it has no where to go but up.
    I’m already seeing “pioneers” locating in the urban core to start small businesses. What we really need are some major committments to the urban core from big business to provide opportunities to folks who really need a good job they can count on for many years.
    I foresee the urban core experiencing a renewal in the coming decades as people rediscover what made those areas so great in the beginning.
    What we need to do is eliminate corruption at all levels inside and outside of the government that choke the urban core. Too many times, the urban core is treated like a colony to be exploited by those wanting to take advantage of disempowered people.
    We need to encourage teachers to come to the inner city to teach by paying them more, while cutting costs on the administrative end. Too many urban schools strike me as being “top heavy” with all of the benefits going to those sitting behind desks in offices, and too little going to the teacher struggling just to get through the day.
    We need to reach out beyond our little spheres of influence to really help those people who need help, whether its tutoring a kid or making sandwiches at the homeless shelter.
    One person can’t do it alone, but if thousands pull together, the sheer power and determination of a motivated group can produce miracles.
    We need a leader, but since no one is standing up to do the job, we must take on the leadership role where we can to make the difference.

  8. Well-reasoned, Chris!
    Who should help pay to relocate the teachers and the small businesses who gamble on reentering the urban core?
    Is this a municipality problem or a state problem or a Federal one?
    Where will the money be found to foot these programs?

  9. There could be local efforts to combine government resources for greater efficiency and savings. Indianapolis and Marion County have a “uni-gov” system and just recently voted to merge all of their police into one unit.
    Having a county-wide school district in an urban area could provide better opportunities for students by giving the schools access to staff, teachers, and programs that they might not have in their own city-wide district.
    The state could help out also by restructuring taxes. Most school funding comes from local property taxes. In the poor areas, there tax base isn’t as great as in the richer areas. Maybe some funding could come from some other source, such as a county income tax.
    The federal government could help out by forgiving student loans of any amount for five years of teaching service in the inner city. This would provide an incentive for some of the best and brightest to work for a while to get rid of their student loan burden. Also, the Feds could provide matching grants for teacher salaries.
    The local and state governments could also provide grants for housing the teachers in the urban core.

  10. Hi Chris —
    I like the idea of “uni-gov” to help meet the demands of citizens.
    County control of schools would be an *extremely* interesting task to undertake.
    I get concerned when I hear about increased taxes or redistribution of taxes because taxation has such a vile reputation in the community that focusing its effects on improving poor schools might do more harm than good to the children in those schools and the politicians who support such a tax plan.
    I believe there is currently some sort of forgiveness of federal students loans for those who choose to teach in depressed areas. The problem is protection. The new teachers are too terrified to take urban core jobs.
    I think the housing allowance idea is truly fantastic and it would go a long way to making the urban core more enticing beyond proactive morality.
    I feel we make some interesting progress today, Chris, thanks!

  11. I looked at the urban violence in France issues in my blog a couple of months ago and drew some parallels with the race riots in the 60s. I read the Wikipedia entry on Martin Luther King Jr. at the time (interesting and full of good references).
    Happy Birthday Mr King.

  12. In the 60’s I think that there was a hope of a better tommorow; both JFK and LBJ had visions of progressive, sustainable social progress.Do we still have that hope? Where is the vision and the leadership behind that vision to set the tone of domestic policy and guide us toward an equitable future? Some historian’s speak of the ‘failure syndrome’ of the 1970’s, where US domestic and foreign policies failed or produced little change at large economic and political costs. This took the wind out of social progress and left people bitter and wary of continued change. During this same period, the very middle class that had fomented and supported social change began to backlash against the increased militance of minority rights groups and became increasingly disinterested in the causes they had helped nuture and bring to national attention. Without the aligned support of the middle-class most social movements die a lonely death. I believe the support is alive, however it is in desperate need of a unifying vision.
    Breaks for new teachers to entice them into the urban core is an interesting concept, however I worry that new teachers lack the experience that the demanding urban environment requires. They are too apt to try the latest teaching methods rather than figuring out how to connect with students whose lives are likely very different from the suburban upbringings they might be familiar with. I also agree that protection is an issue, though in many cities the actual security in the urban core is higher than the media or commonly held beliefs might suggest. It is difficult to attract college educated people with the paltry salaries that new teachers are given. When education provides the foundation of social equity, why do we as a society place public education at such a low priority? Teachers are treated like second-class citizens, forced to work in some of the worst surroundings imaginable, given little specialized training to deal with problems unique to the urban core, and continually blamed for the problems in our education system.
    While tax restructuring is very tempting, I agree with David that it is treading on dangerous political ground. Measures for increasing property taxes to support local schools often die at the hands of older property owners. Getting the people who stand to gain the most from such measures is often a difficult task. Change can be had at the polls, but people have to vote!

  13. Thanks for expanding your argument, Jonathan, your details are exquisite!
    I think Dr. King’s death did two things — it satiated just enough and it frightened just enough that those who were being helped felt a little relief for the first time in their lives and those who where in the midst of helping felt just enough had been done so why risk further needless injury and death.
    Instead of inspiring the movement onward, Dr. King’s death made him a martyr and his message became one of history with a starting point and an identifiable end. If there was one error of judgment in Dr. King’s legacy it was that the effort was spearheaded in the minds of many mainly by him — there was no mosaic of faces and public personas that were strong enough to move the movement forward after the death of the movement’s messiah.
    I also think it’s easier to take away than to give more — because people can be convinced they were once satiated that life was once good and to want more is to beckon power and wealth and that goes against the teachings of the Christian church where one is taught to never want more than what one once had.
    The threat to teachers in the urban core comes in verbal assaults and threats from parents to push their kid along in the system no matter the performance parameters. I can’t imagine many young, idealistic, teachers fresh out of the School of Education landing in the middle of the Bronx or Newark or Paterson who would be able to emotionally handle or stand up to “I’m gonna f*ck you up after class” from students two years older than their peers and as tall as the teacher.
    There are safer jobs to be had for more money and the students and parents know that – go along with us in the lowest common denominator of expectation and we’ll leave you alone – and with that toxic methodology of interaction everyone continues to lose.
    Those students were born to the street and if you do not innately know how the street rules you cannot compete on that level in a classroom. Unless we place a police officer in every classroom we will have to find another way to bring decorum and respect for authority back each classroom to ensure the safety of not only the fresh teacher, but the jaded children as well.
    I think the only way to mobilize a change in the urban core public schools is with a blanket of government programs that will take over, mandate and force the process to be unflinchingly worthwhile for the parents of these children to be in school instead of on the streets.
    It would cost a lot of money upfront but in the long run you would hope to be able to make it up on the other side in future reduced prisons payments, the removal of mandatory remedial programs and in cutting juvenile courts costs.

  14. The talk of young teachers in the urban core opened my eyes and draws yet another parallel with the French system where sadly, the newest teachers are indeed confronted with “I’m going to f**k you up” and have even been stabbed.
    David said :

    I can’t imagine many young, idealistic, teachers fresh out of the School of Education landing in the middle of the Bronx or Newark or Paterson who would be able to emotionally handle or stand up to “I’m gonna f*ck you up after class” from students two years older than their peers and as tall as the teacher.

    That’s exactly what happens in the French system: junior teachers have a baptism of fire in the toughest schools where nobody else wants to go. Until you acquire enough points to be able to opt for your region and type of school, you are put in the hardest places. A friend of mine has just started her career and she’s in a school where she routinely deals ‘(several times a week) with exclusions. Apart from a few dedicated pedagogues who never move on, the kids that need the best experience and help are abandoned as soon as teachers get enough points – they cannot cope with the threats and physical assaults.
    My article (the comments are just as interesting as the post) on urban violence in France highlighted some of the issues surrounding the “ghettoisation” of the poor and underprivileged. The link to education in these areas is important to bring up.

  15. Hi fruey!
    Yes, teachers and parents are threatened by their own and the community’s feral children and no good or kindness ever comes of it. Children rule their parents and the schools and one of the only exchanges of commerce they understand is violence.
    Thanks for setting out the teaching plot in France. It is so unfortunate. Some of the same things happen here. New teachers earn service years and the old, tired, teachers get the pick of the best jobs and the most eager students while the inexperienced and raw teachers get the inexperienced and raw students. It’s a sad chainsaw chain of events…
    Thanks for the link to your excellent article! It is a great, but sad, read.