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Charles Blow on Martin Luther King's 'Other America'

New York Times columnist lays down hard truths about cost of structural inequality

EVANSTON - “Are we willing, strong and brave enough to keep fighting for full racial equality?” This question was posed by Charles M. Blow, New York Times columnist, at Northwestern University last night (Jan. 25) as roughly 600 students, faculty, staff and community members gathered to remember civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.

Blow’s unflinching honesty and pointed commentaries on social and political issues generate approximately 1,000 responses weekly from readers of his column. Capacity audiences turned out for both of Blow’s talks on the Chicago and Evanston campuses, where he was the keynote speaker for Northwestern’s commemoration of King.

Blow’s address focused on the relevance of what he considered King’s greatest speech, “The Other America,” delivered at Stanford University in 1967, one year before his assassination. A departure from King’s optimistic “I Have a Dream” speech, “The Other America” speech showed King’s evolution, and he used it to forcefully address issues of persistent racism, poverty and war.

King became convinced that passing the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts was easy, compared to dismantling the legal and structural racism that prevents access to fair housing and economic prosperity.

“It did not cost the nation anything to pass civil rights and voting,” Blow said. “We can’t get rid of slums and poverty without it costing something.”

Blow connected King’s message to Northern cities like Chicago. King observed that many northerners who were outraged by southern violence against blacks also were complacent against inequality and actively opposed housing rights.

“Hate is not a requirement of white supremacy,” he said. Describing the “soft white supremacy” of the North, Blow recounted how migrating blacks thought they were fleeing the violent racism of the South, but for many the North fell woefully short. What they found in the North was the deceitful, structural racism of unequal housing and schools and police brutality.

“People don’t wake up wanting to be in America’s poorest neighborhoods. Ghettos are in America because America created them, to segregate,” Blow said.

Tracing the foundation of legal racism to the 1863 emancipation of slaves, Blow called this a time of “freedom and famine” for blacks, because though they were freed from the bondage of physical slavery, an act of Congress kept blacks from owning land. At the same time, America gave land to whites immigrating from Europe, sending officials to the frontier to teach white settlers to farm and provide them with bank loans. “And then those people became the people who said to blacks, ‘pull yourselves up by your bootstraps,’” Blow said.

Blow pointed to the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander, who reports there are more black men behind bars or under the watch of the prison system today than were enslaved before the Civil War in 1850.

“Pressures on law enforcement by politicians to fill budget gaps leads to increased contact in poor neighborhoods to punish and profit,” Blow said.

“We don’t focus enough on the clusters of police shootings in Northern and Western cities,” he said. “In many ways, the North and West have become the new civil rights battle grounds.”

Noting that King moved to the Lawndale neighborhood in 1966 to fight for fair housing, Blow said that while in Chicago, “King learned a lesson that shocked him -- that racism in the North is possibly more virulent than in the South.”

When 10,000 white people showed up in opposition of King here in Chicago, he said, King had “never seen anything so hostile and hateful.”

Quoting from King’s last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Blow said, “All I can say to America is be true to what you said on paper.”

“It is now up to us to ensure all men are created equal,” Blow said. He concluded with these words from the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The capacity audience rose in unison for a sustained ovation.

Blow’s visit was the centerpiece of Northwestern’s two-week long commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. King, which began Jan. 15 and continues through Jan. 31.

Northwestern’s Community-wide MLK Commemoration

The capacity audience filling Northwestern’s Ryan Auditorium was warmed up and receptive after an expansive performance of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” sung by Bienen School of Music opera student Tiana Sorenson.

MLK Commemoration Committee co-chair Kathleen Nganga’18 invited the audience to “renew its commitment to the values of Dr. King. We need champions of truth, who will break the margins of marginalization.” 

Northwestern Associated Student Government (ASG) President Nehaarika Mulukutla, who introduced Blow, alluded to the depressing state of the world right now and how writers like Blow are needed more than ever. “His words feed our souls,” she observed, “and give us the will to wake up in the morning and fight.”

Blow is a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, where he addresses hot-button issues such as social justice, racial equality, presidential politics, police violence, gun control and the Black Lives Matter movement. Blow also is a CNN commentator and was a Presidential Visiting Professor at Yale University, where he taught a seminar on media and politics.

He is the author of The New York Times bestselling memoir “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which won a Lambda Literary Award and the Sperber Prize, and it made multiple prominent lists of best books published in 2014.

Larry Stuelpnagel, assistant professor, Medill School of Journalism and senior lecturer political science, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, closed the MLK commemoration keynote program. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. This is a time for vigorous and positive action,” he said.

The program also included performances by Northwestern University Jazz Small Ensemble, Northwestern Community Ensemble and a benediction by Associate University Chaplain Rev. Jackie Marquez.

Other 2018 commemoration events included a day of service at a Rogers Park school, theatrical performances, a panel on Chicago’s history with race and a candlelight vigil.

Upcoming events include tonight’s Harambee Celebration at Norris University Center and a Black Lives Matter Quilt artmaking event Jan. 31. More information about these events is available on Northwestern’s MLK commemoration website.

Northwestern’s MLK commemoration began Jan. 15 with a candlelight vigil hosted by the Alpha Mu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity featuring business executive, engineer, consultant and education advocate Don Thompson.

Thompson, who grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project, is founder and CEO of Cleveland Avenue LLC, a consulting firm working with entrepreneurs in the food, beverage and restaurant industry. He is former CEO of McDonalds Corporation. Thompson’s wife, Liz, oversees the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, which provides college preparation and career development opportunities to urban students and young professionals of color.

In a roundtable conversation with Alpha Mu chapter members JaVahn Iverson and Craig Wanda, Thompson imparted key lessons learned in his career and how the legacy of Dr. King still influences him.

“Never place an arbitrary ceiling on your capabilities,” Thompson said.  Though he never imagined himself the CEO of a company, he always believed if he’d had the opportunity, he could do it as well as anyone else.

When asked what Dr. King’s legacy meant to him, he replied, “He is the part of all of us we’d like to come to the surface. He embodies passion, drive and a quiet strength that allowed him to turn the other cheek, while garnering great support around him.”