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Empowerment in D.C.'s Ward 8

I wrote in Saturday's column about the different takes that President Obama and DC's Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) had on the word empowerment. To no surprise, I was critical of Barry. At noon on Saturday, I fulfilled a longstanding engagement to deliver the "African American History Month" address before the Ward Eight Democrats in Anacostia, a Marion Barry stronghold. "In for a dime, in for a dollar" was my thought. Barry wasn't there, but I chatted with his girlfriend, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. And this is what I said to the group: (I got out with my life, a plaque, and much applause.):

When Phil Pannell extended an invitation to join you for this celebration of African American History Month, I eagerly accepted.

First, because there is no way to say "no" to Phil, and live to talk about it.

More importantly, this is a critical time for us pause and reflect upon how far we have come as a people in the nation's capital, and to consider the challenges that remain.

President Obama chose for this year's National African American History Month the theme, "The History of Black Economic Empowerment."

In his proclamation, the president called upon the nation to honor African Americans who overcame injustice and inequality to achieve financial independence and the security of self empowerment that comes with it.

I would like to use this occasion, however, to look beyond economic empowerment. We need to assess where we are as heirs of earlier generations of African Americans who helped build this city.

But first, I want to make it clear that I am not going to stand before you and suggest that African American life in the past was so much better than it is today.

I remember the day when black kids in Anacostia had to travel west of the river to attend high school, because the only secondary school in this part of town, Anacostia Senior High, was for whites only.

I remember riding the street car with my father, brother and sister from our West End/Foggy Bottom home to the end of the line at Glen Echo, Md., and not getting off the car, because Glen Echo was not for people who looked like us.

I remember a day in this city when we had no vote, when the president appointed city leaders, and when Congress had, not only the final say, but the only say.

I remember the dual school system. The one for African Americans, with older buildings and older books. It was called Division Two. And the other system, with better buildings and books, appropriately named "Division One" for white kids.

I remember a D.C. police force filled with white officers, some recruited from the South; and racially segregated fire stations; and fleets of taxi cabs that, as a matter of policy and practice, would not pick up blacks.

I remember those days all too well.

But I also remember streets where there were grocery stores owned and operated by African Americans. Where you could find tailors and shoe repairmen. I remember a time when our teachers, lawyers, doctors and preachers lived in our own neighborhoods.

I remember when we considered it part of our duty to make sure that a neighbor wasn't going hungry or getting put out on the streets.

I remember a time when we gave what we had without thinking about it too much, because we knew others would do the same for us if we were in their shoes.

And I remember a time when we may not have had much, but what we did have belonged to us: The places where we lived, our churches, our neighborhoods. Nobody took care of our children. Nobody.

I remember a time when we had pride. When we were too proud to beg, too proud to look for sympathy, too proud to make excuses, too proud to let our own people down.

Let's be clear. I defer to no one in being able to catalogue the reasons why the American Dream is still beyond the grasp of so many of us, even as we celebrate African American History Month 2010.

I don't have to be told about the bitterness of slavery. I heard about it, not from books, but from the mouths of my elders.

My great-grandfather's name is there at the Civil War Memorial museum on U Street. He was a member of the 5th Colored Cavalry in Massachusetts that fought in Virginia during the Civil War. Fighting, by the way, for the North, and in a Union Army that would not recognize his humanity. The 5th Colored Cavalry was segregated from the white Union soldiers and it was commanded by white officers.

Racial prejudice? We've all had a taste. Institutional discrimination. We know that, too.

And the remnants of bigotry are still around.

As for economic inequality?

I know what it's like to not have enough money to buy new shoes and clothes…to wear hand-me-downs from the families where our mother did days work as a domestic.

I know what it's like to make do with meals of stews, and beans, and biscuits, and to be thankful that our parents could even put food on the table.

I know what it's like to take in "roomers" in your house, and to sell chitlin' and chicken dinners to make ends meet.

We never applied the words "poverty" and "poor" to ourselves. But we knew there was a lot of stuff…a whole lot of stuff…that we didn't have, and that our parents couldn't afford to get.

The King family never had a car. Not until I finished college, got married, went into the Army and with my first pay bought a used Chevrolet Corvair.

Growing up, it was-for us-the street car, the bus, or walk. We walked everywhere. It wasn't crowded, either.

We had a small patch of grass on our front lawn at 1101 24th Street N.W., in the Foggy Bottom/West End part of town. We couldn't afford a lawn mower, so my father cut the grass with scissors, and I hauled buckets of water from the kitchen to wet the grass.

And we did stuff like that because we were raised to keep whatever we had looking nice.

I say all of this to make the point that all of us have had to struggle in one way or another to get where we are today.

And we can look back and celebrate that we have come so far.

But in the celebration of our triumph of courage and tenacity over doubt and resistance, we cannot overlook the challenges that we still face in this city, and right here in Ward 8.

You don't have to leave the District of Columbia to find disparities marked by race and class. Examine public school test scores, HIV/AIDS rates, criminal records, the ownership of homes and businesses.

The truth is, in the year 2010, even with, as Obama put it, our "rise above the injustices of our time," we, as a people, still have some steep mountains to climb.

The means to climb those mountains -- to improve our schools, to raise children for a future of good jobs and not bad jails, to marshal the resources to buy homes and build businesses and viable communities -- some of those means can be obtained from public and private sources.

But there are some things that government and philanthropy can't provide.

We, as a people, must supply the dedication. We must possess a sense of urgency to reach the mountain top. No one can give us a dose of commitment.

It starts with us having confidence in our own capabilities, as generations before us had.

Which gets me to the subject of today's column and to the challenge before you, Ward 8 Democrats: It is empowerment.

It falls to leadership in this community -- leadership of churches like Mathews Memorial, political associations like this, and other community leaders -- to provide the means to help people in this ward to make the right choices, and to show them how to transform those choices into actions and outcomes. That is what empowerment is all about.

As you may know, I was once the U.S. executive director to the World Bank, where a lot work was done on empowerment -- on finding ways for people who have been pushed to the edges of society to have freedom of choice and action. The World Bank does this kind of work with developing countries.

Freedom of choice and action must happen here, not only in Ward 8, but in our community at large.

And let me say this: Empowerment can't come by way of D.C. government grants and contracts. I don't care what your councilmember, Marion Barry says.

As Mathews Memorial Baptist Church knows: Change starts with spiritual empowerment.
We must overcome fear of the unknown, overcome being afraid of crossing bridges that we haven't even reached.

As I learned from one of my "Day By Day" meditations this week: Anxiety reflects a mistrust of God.

It said: "If anything is needed, ask: and then leave it to God. If he doesn't give it, so much the better. It wasn't really needed."

Don't be afraid. Think positively about our ability to make change. When that happens, that's spiritual empowerment.

Focus, above all, upon developing the skills in this ward that lead to self-sufficiency.
Grantsmanship, hustling city contracts, inside dealing won't get -- and keep -- you there. It is about developing talents and abilities that cause people to grow and become skilled workers and professionals with decision making power of their own.

That's what leads to economic empowerment.

A child who masters a book, solves a complex math problem, speaks up confidently when asked, is a child who is empowered.

A woman able to put down domestic violence and exercise control over her life is a woman empowered.

A gay or lesbian neighbor who can walk our streets freed from the threat of attack is a neighbor empowered.

A community that can come together to make decisions on matters that affect it is a community empowered.

Which gets me to the Ward 8 Dems in this African American History month.

As a political organization, your concern should not be limited to winning elections. As a major community institution, you have to change the perception that some others have about Ward 8.

You must show that Ward 8 is not a marginalized section of the city, dependent soley on the charity of people west of RFK stadium.

Ward 8 must have a positive self-image, clear of the stigma political corruption and self-dealing. Residents are so much better than the face of Ward 8 on display in the John Wilson Building.

You can confirm that statement.

In a few days, Councilmember Barry is expected to respond to the devastating special counsel report on his conduct in office.

I understand that Ward 8 Dems will consider his response and take a position shortly thereafter.

Marion Barry may be the agenda item.

But at stake is whether you will make a difference politically in this ward.

At issue is whether you are strong and courageous enough to hold your leaders accountable -- whether Ward 8 Dems are politically empowered or a marginalized group at someone else's beck and call.

The whole city will be watching.

Much of the history of this city has been recorded. You now have an opportunity to add your own chapter.

I hope that when future generations look back at this month, they will say that the Ward 8 Democrats did their part to move this city forward toward a brighter, and honorable, future.

That will, indeed, mark African American History month 2010 in Washington, D.C. as a time to be remembered.

Thank you very much, and God Bless Ward 8.

By Colbert King  | February 22, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  King  | Tags:  Colbert King  
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Incredible. I am speechless. Thank you, Mr.King.

Posted by: martymar123 | February 22, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

Wise words, eloquent and morally commanding. I am a white man from Houston in his late 60's. I remember the black families and communities of Mr. King's era with admiration. Oddly, my brother and I when still kids knew that in some way, some way touching on their dignity and self-possession in the face of what they were up against, they were better than us.

Posted by: Roytex | February 22, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

I would love to read a book on DC written by you, Mr. King.

Posted by: foldingtime | February 22, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Like the other commentors, I am in awe, Mr. King. These sentiments have needed to be said for so many, many years. I hope your audience has finally come to a place where they are ready to listen.

Posted by: bravegirl01 | February 22, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I can no answer make, but thank you,thank you and thank you, Mr. King. I could barely finish reading ...the tears were flowing down.
I might add that I remember many things,,,but one concerns the white real estate agents who bought up houses in low income near in SE and NE ...the trick was that the agent told the black home owner that the agent would buy his house for say, $60,000.00 if the owner would take back the mortgage...but, would pay cold cash...for $30, guessed it! And then, the agent who had a young, white woman who wanted a house with a porch(one was for sale for $60,000.00...but the "protect" the woman said that the porch house was in a dangerous neighborhood- wrong, those front porch houses had owners sitting on those porches watching every person who went was a safe neighborhood. Both of these places are now called "Capitol Hill." And to our Ward 8 Dems...if you need help, call your Ward 6 Dems.....So much to learn, understand and little time.

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | February 22, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Mr. King for stating what needed to be said. The majority of us will get it and I regret, most will not have even read your article. As for the subject at hand, even for those that may not have had an opportunity to read this article, they "too" are fed up and are ready to move "forward" with a new generation of Leaders. Leaders we all can showcase as an example of pride like we all did just a few generations ago.

Posted by: WhitneyDavid | February 22, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Mr. King's comments are definitely what Ward 8 Dems and others need to hear. I grew up in Ward 8 in the '40s and graduated from Anacostia in '58. Everything he spoke on is accurate. There was never a sense of lack during those days, even though we were dirt poor. Neighbors were supportive and we definitely sat on our "porches" and interacted with each other.

I believe Mr. Barry served well when he first was in office and made significant difference for the people of Ward 8 and the entire city. However, enough is enough and Mr. Barry should take a seat and let history write a positive story on him now. Ward 8 Dems should take ahold of it's destiny and make the people once again proud to live there. Ward 8 has been a "best kept secret" for many years and I bet you that it will soon be taken over by whites in the very near future. Let's get a hold on it NOW.

Posted by: pmariesmith | February 22, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Black people in the surrounding area of Washington Dc Metropolitian neighborhood need to be enpowered and have a chance to own businesses. For example, the black hair products is a 1 billion dollar industry and I am sick and tired of buying hair products from Chinese and Koreans people who don't like us. They also don't respect us. My sister told me recently that she went to a store and one of the Chinese manager were following her probably think she would steal. This attitude frustrates me and I came to the conclusion that black people have a long way to go for economic improvement, because sometimes were are unwilling to help each other. All other minorities are helping their races, but black people need to show more unity and loyalty within for their race.

Posted by: dsroberts | February 22, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

if whites have been left behind by progressives giving our jobs over to the indians and others...
what makes you think you are still viable...
what makes you think that the Republicans are responsable for your woes...
when more and more progressives are milking the treasury dry...
all the friends of geitner and corzine are pocketing billions and you and your people put them in power to do so...
if we go down...
we will all go down...
and we will all be slaves...

Posted by: DwightCollins | February 22, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

every dem wants to be a latinos best friend...
because their votes will give them the majority...
the day a latinos takes maxine waters seat...
it's already too late...
the change will have begun for the Latino/european USA...

Posted by: DwightCollins | February 22, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Well done, Mr. King. Many times your columns come off as a rant, and very polarizing(I'm sure I may be half the problem on that score), this was a needed and long over-due reminder to us all.

Posted by: jckdoors | February 22, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

"We, as a people, must supply the dedication. We must possess a sense of urgency to reach the mountain top. No one can give us a dose of commitment...
Empowerment can't come by way of D.C. government grants and contracts."


Yes---thank you! I'm so sick of people whining about how "if only someone gave me a chance!" Make your own chances! Get an education, stay out of trouble, EMPOWER YOURSELVES---because no one else is going to do it for you.

Posted by: arlingtonresident | February 22, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

"The World Bank does this kind of work [finding ways for people who have been pushed to the edges of society to have freedom of choice and action] with developing countries." The World Bank has FAILED in this kind of work!!! King's address is divisive along race/class lines. Shame on him.

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | February 22, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Mr. King for an excellent article. And God bless the people of Ward 8.

Posted by: paris1969 | February 22, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Great column. I can only infer from your comments that you have been fighting welfare and forced dependence on the govt? As you say, compare your life growing up with someone growing up here now. What changed? An end to self reliance and turning one's fate over to govt programs.

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | February 22, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

I can only echo the appreciation other commenters have expressed for this remarkable column. Thank you, Mr. King.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | February 22, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Excellent speech!

Posted by: keirreva | February 22, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Much much better use of your God given abilities and talents. I salute you sir.

Posted by: MILLER123 | February 22, 2010 9:05 PM | Report abuse

fr the article:

>...A gay or lesbian neighbor who can walk our streets freed from the threat of attack is a neighbor empowered....<

VERY true. As a gay woman in California who has been verbally assaulted and SPAT UPON by so-called "Christians" at local Pride events, I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: Alex511 | February 22, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

To tell you the truth, we have a long, long ways to go.

I just read "Oops people of color live There". It is about a Black family trying to sell their home in the DC area. Read that book at poclt and you will see People of Color have a long long ways to go.

Posted by: Moley2 | February 22, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

Just for the record, in my 4:28 PM comment I only meant to say that this was a "remarkable" column, not a "remarkable remarkable" column.

For some reason Windows 7, Internet Explorer 8 and Washington Post comment boxes cause words to repeat more often than not.

That said, it's not often that as I read something I'm as moved as I was reading this column. Once every few years.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | February 22, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

I look to the beginning as to Adam and Eve. I am a child of God who happens to be of color and an American. I believe we're all related and all this talk of race is not necessary. Think for a minute. Look in any Nursey and you see not one new born have a problem with the other. Then go to a grave site and read the names of people burned next to each other with no complaints. It's only in the middle that we seem to have the problems. Now I see in the end we will be as we were in the beginning accepting one another as children of God.

Posted by: qqbDEyZW | February 22, 2010 11:47 PM | Report abuse

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