Middle class must revive the dream for the poor

The Baltimore Sun

Come April, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will have been dead 40 years from the bullet of a racist assassin. In August, it will have been 45 years since he delivered his "I have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Dr. King gave his life to improve the condition of black Americans. If he were with us today, he would be witness to a march backward.

He would see young, black high school dropouts standing on the street corners of Baltimore and other once-great cities, pants worn low, using foul language and killing each other by the thousands. And Dr. King would find a black middle class that does not seem to believe, as he did, that there are causes in life greater than oneself.

Many in today's black middle class have forgotten about the civil rights movement and have taken a hike from its responsibilities. They have done little against the ravages of black America.

Perhaps many in the black middle class feel that nothing can be done. After all, the odds against any efforts to improve black America are long. Yet we all would do well to remember the words of Edmund Burke: "Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little."

If the black middle class could find its roots, speaking out and working on the causes of this deterioration, the status of black America could be greatly improved. Yes, racism will continue to be a major impediment to black progress, and it will continue beyond our lifetimes. But the generations before us made great strides toward equality in the face of racism that was much more pervasive than today. How? Through self-sacrifice and hard work, believing that the cause of freedom for all was much greater than their individual selves.

While continuing to confront racism, we must also confront the other major causes that contribute to the decline of black America. There is a lack of good parenting - the kind that teaches our children the virtues of respect for themselves and others. Good parenting is lacking, mainly because there are far too many teen pregnancies. Children cannot raise children. Breaking this cycle is the key to rebuilding parental responsibility. And yes, young fathers must be made to contribute to the support and rearing of their children.

Another pervasive problem that adversely affects the black underclass is the failure of our schools to provide the education that is essential to obtaining employment. However, even if the schools provided the necessary education, society does not provide good jobs for all those who want and need them. This is another problem that the black middle class could help to solve if the will to do so were present.

We, the black middle class, can and must create a better educational and economic system. These problems cannot be solved by our so-called black leaders, or by trusting the government to help, or by blaming racism for all of the ills of the black underclass.

Dr. King preached a gospel of hope and worked to make his dream of a better life for the have-nots a reality. Through his vision, hard work and leadership, he succeeded in knocking down doors and ridding the country of racist laws that barred people of color from the opportunity to achieve economic equality.

But his work isn't done, and blacks and other minorities have largely squandered the opportunities that Dr. King bequeathed to us. We have chosen to blame racism for our shortcomings and have failed to overcome them through good deeds and hard work.

We should celebrate his birth by rededicating ourselves to achieving the society that Dr. King dreamed of. Let's start by redoubling our efforts to rid the black community of the crippling ills of bad behavior and by re-establishing the hope that comes through the rewards of hard work.

Kenneth Lavon Johnson is a retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge.

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