(pictured above: Ben Jealous delivers his address.)
Like a plane that is rapidly losing altitude, America will fall if her people do not learn to embrace equality, according to former NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous.
“There really is, at the end of the day, no ‘us’ and ‘them,’ no ‘me’ and ‘you,’” he declared. “When it comes to the affairs of our nation, there is truly only us.”
Jealous, who led the nation’s oldest civil rights organization until the end of 2013, offered his thoughts on our nation’s progress towards realizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic dream Monday, during the 14th annual celebration honoring the civil rights leader. “On Common Ground: Fueling the Flame of Equality,” is Winston-Salem State and Wake Forest universities’ annual joint commemoration of the King holiday.
“Today we pause to reflect on his life and work and pause to commit ourselves again to the causes for which he stood so magnificently,” WFU President Nathan Hatch said of King. “…It’s no small feat to take on this responsibility, but in the words of Dr. King, ‘Anyone can be great, because anyone can serve’ …It is my hope that each of us will be inspired and called to do our part toward Dr. King’s great dream.”
The joint King Day commemoration was birthed in 2000, when the two schools came together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the sit-in movement in Winston-Salem, which was launched by a small collaborative of students from both schools.
“These students were of different races, backgrounds, cultures and they came from different parts of town, but they joined together around a common goal,” WSSU Chancellor Donald Reaves told the audience that gathered at Wake Forest’s Wait Chapel for the Jan. 20 celebration. “Those students, like Dr. King, chose a path that was not an easy one, but their actions changed the community and helped to change the nation.”
Despite the strides that have been made, “there is still an awful lot of work to be done,” Reaves said.
Jealous agrees. America’s “mass incarceration addiction” and collective apathy in regard to issues that impact the poor and people of color will eventually be its downfall, as what ails Black America eventually infects the nation as a whole, he said.
“We are simply the canary in the coal mine,” he remarked, citing the foreclosure crisis – which hit the black community first, but spread to virtually every other community in America – as a prime example.
“What happens to us will eventually happen to everyone.”
Over the course of the last four decades, America’s emphasis has shifted from public education to imprisonment, and tax dollars across the nation have followed suit, creating an environment where prisons receive far more financial support than public schools.
“If you look at state budgets, one by one over the last 40 years, prison investment has gone up, and state investment in higher education has gone down. In my home state of California, tuition to public universities went up 28 percent.”
By incarcerating citizens at such a high rate, the United States is robbing itself of some of its brightest minds, locking potential contributors “up” and “out” of society, Jealous said. Louis Gossett Jr., founder of The Eracism Foundation Inc., describes the struggle for equality best, Jealous said.
“We’re fighting for first class, but the plane is losing altitude,” he said, quoting Gossett, an Oscar winning actor.
Those who suffer the greatest hardships as a result of this shift are poor people and people of color, which are often one and the same, since the percentage of African Americans living in poverty has remained virtually unchanged since King’s day, Jealous said.
“Let’s be clear: In America today, a black man is three times more likely to be incarcerated than a black man in South Africa at the height of Apartheid…a white man today is about three-fourths as likely to be incarcerated as a black man in South Africa at the height of Apartheid,” he said. “This is not what Dr. King spoke of when he spoke about equal justice; that would be equal injustice.”
Just as Jesus commanded his disciples to look out for their fellow man, so too must America protect and support those who need it most, Jealous said. In order to close the achievement gap and graduate a population of students who are by and large competitive in the global market, America must begin to invest its resources in the students and schools who need it most, just as an investor who wants to build his portfolio quickly invests in blue chip stocks or a hospital emergency room treats the most severe injuries first, he explained.
“If we could just look at our children as patients, or as stocks – either one,” he said, “we’d be doing a lot better.”
In order to truly succeed in the 21st Century, America must learn to “scour the plane for the best brains and put them in the cockpit,” Jealous said, and that begins with accepting each other as fellow Americans and being willing to attempt working together.
“Let us internalize the wisdom of Gossett and recognize no matter what boat we came in on, we’re all on the same airplane now,” he declared. “Tonight, your two universities, in coming together like this and creating a community like this in Winston-Salem, have taken a good first step.”