Bankole: What would MLK say about Detroit?

Bankole Thompson

In a bid to sanitize his legacy and make it conform to what we want, some of us think about the Rev. Martin Luther Jr. only in terms of his “I Have a Dream” speech, where he expressed hope that one day his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

But King was more than the dream speech he gave before hundreds of thousands of people during the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He is more than the advertising gimmick created by market-driven forces to promote sales on the King national holiday. 

King was more than the dream speech he gave before hundreds of thousands of people during the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Thompson says.

King was a radical minister. He was a courageous leader who indicted not only the federal government for neglect of its citizens, as well as put purveyors of racism and hate on front street, but he also called out elite members of the black community and the white liberal establishment for failing poor people.

If King were alive, he would have strong words not only for the white liberal leadership of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, but also the corresponding spineless leadership of the black civic community and organizations whom he’d expect to be a fierce voice on behalf of those left out in the recovery of the city. He would view the recent $600 million over-assessment of Detroit homeowners as a major threat to the economic security and freedom of those who are barely making it, while heavy investments in the more affluent areas of the city continues.

In his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here,” King chastised traditional black organizations for abdicating their responsibilities to the suffering masses of blacks.

Without mincing his words, he listed them specifically in order of their importance starting with the black church, sororities and fraternities saying, “We must admit that these forces have never given their full resources to the cause of negro liberation.” 

He added, “Too many Negro professional and social groups have degenerated into snobbishness a preoccupation with frivolities and trivial activity. But the failures of the past must not be an excuse for the inaction of the present and the future. These groups must be mobilized and motivated. We have been oppressed as a group and we must overcome that oppression as a group.” 

The challenges that Detroit faces will not be solved alone by those who occupy fancy titles at City Hall, but rather by effective and consistent advocacy from groups whose historic mission it is to confront the crisis of inequality. It is up to them to put pressure on the elected leadership to expand the limits of economic opportunities that would guarantee true equality in the city. 

Unfortunately, King would be extremely disappointed in Detroit right now especially among those prominent black organizations who have distanced themselves publicly from the crisis of the overtaxed debt that many homeowners were subjected to from 2010-16. He would be asking them, what do they have to lose for being so silent since the issue came to light two weeks ago? 

Yet those who have decided that it is better to not rock the boat, but to play along with the Duggan administration and accept its ridiculous explanation on the overtaxed debt as resolution, will be betraying King’s legacy. It is hypocritical to celebrate King and talk about the brave positions he took on major policy issues, while at the same time, we refuse to call out the injustice that an over-assessment creates for already burdened and frustrated black homeowners in Detroit. 

If there is anything we learned about King’s life, it is that he was not a coward. He unrelentingly gave voice to the claims of the oppressed without considering the risk involved.

If King were still around, he would be doing the same for the poor Detroiters pushed out of their homes as well as for those who have been overtaxed.

And to the city leadership, who say that nothing can be done about the debt of the overtaxed, King perhaps would have fired back a line from one of his speeches: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”