By Sally Greenberg, Chief Executive Officer
Each year, I savor the MLK Jr. weekend and holiday because it gives me time to reflect on the impact that Dr. King had. And here in Washington, DC, there’s an annual march along the boulevard named for King that snakes through Ward 8, a largely African American community, with lots of inspiring speeches, marching bands, Double Dutch jump rope jumping, and health fairs along the route. I try never to miss it and today’s march did not disappoint!
King was a towering figure who spoke to all of us as Americans about injustice, racial and otherwise. I loved that he refused to be discouraged by poverty and discrimination, telling his followers “out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
My “shot in the arm” when I start to get down about my work is King’s famous command “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
MLK weekend is also a time for reckoning about how racial injustice took root in America—beginning with the enslavement of 12 million Africans in 1619 and continued over hundreds of years, and its debilitating effects throughout generations.
Personally, I’m constantly learning new facts about the many forms racial discrimination has been embedded in our culture. I recently attended a program held in the affluent Friendship Heights section of Washington, DC. A series of posters were displayed in the window of a PEPCO substation describing how the city fathers in the 1920s decided to tear down an entire black neighborhood, uprooting blocks of homes that made up a thriving middle class community in Tenleytown right off Wisconsin Avenue.
These elected officials and members of the business community made plans to build a junior high school and a high school next door for white students. They bulldozed black homes whose children had long attended their neighborhood school, albeit a segregated school. So up went Alice Deal Junior High and Wilson High School. The school for black students closed and the black families, now without homes, moved out. Where they went is a mystery but probably to another part of town. Students at Wilson High, now called Jackson Reed, did the research for this project.
I was so surprised to be learning this history for the first time because 20 years ago, my son attended both schools, and I served as co-President of Alice Deal Middle School. No one had ever discussed this history until now.
Which tells us that we need to have these discussions.
The exhibit showed me that redlining was—and no doubt is—alive and well, and that white leaders, either through malice or indifference, thought nothing of destroying cohesive, vibrant African American communities in hundreds of cities throughout the United States. In doing so, they destroyed the fabric of these communities, their family ties, their civic life, and their children’s futures. These histories must not be forgotten.
What can we do to right the wrongs?
There is no way to compensate the African American community for slavery, for Jim Crow, or pervasive redlining and discrimination. But the bill HR 40, introduced in the House of Representatives for decades, would set up a commission to study the issue of reparations to African Americans. It sounds complicated, but compensation for past wrongs has been doled out many times. Reparations were paid to Jewish victims of the Holocaust by Germany, to Native Americans in Alaska, to Japanese families interned during WWII, to 911 victims and their families from a taxpayer funded account.
NCL strongly supports HR 40.
While we hope that HR 40 sees the light of day in Congress, in the meantime, let’s not sweep US history under the rug. We can’t heal as a country until we confront the legacy of slavery and the persistent discrimination that followed emancipation. What happened in Washington, DC’s Tenleytown neighborhood in the 1920s is part of that legacy. I’m still learning and hope others are open to learning as well, and in the famous words of Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”