Guest commentary by Carlton Johnson
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. shared what was, in my opinion, his most powerful message: I’ve Been to the Mountain Top. Just as he had done in his speech to those who attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (which has since been distilled to a few feel-good sound bites about a “dream”), on that April day, King presented a radical and liberating message directing oppressed people in a way that would demand immediate attention and respect from those who would otherwise ignore them.
“Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. The American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada.
“We don’t have to argue with anybody. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “… if you are not prepared to (treat God’s children right)… our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
Economic boycotts were the true power behind the marches of the movement. King’s suggested actions were reminiscent of the directions given by Paul to Thessalonian Followers of the Way who had grown weary of their mistreatment. Thessalonica was a port or “capital” city of Macedonia. It was a happening town; sort of the Atlanta of Macedonia. But just like Atlanta is not Georgia, Thessalonica was not Macedonia. Though the “progressive” Jews in Thessalonica welcomed the new movement, Macedonian cities “outside of the perimeter” had not.
In response to their ostracization, Paul’s encouragement was first to remain focused. Using ancient principles also incorporated in the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles at the heart of Kwanzaa), he encouraged Kujichagulia, to “mind your own affairs” and Kuumba, creativity. (For more information on these concepts go to officialkwanzaawebsite.org) The multi-vocational apostle practiced what he preached; Paul was foremost a master leathersmith. He also challenged them to practice Ujima, to work together.
Paul wraps up this portion of the message encouraging Ujamaa, the imperative to invest in their own community. Specifically, Paul says, while you’re waiting, be dependent on no one! I would argue that the leathersmith was intimate with the power of economic solidarity.
Since the Civil Rights Movement, such solidarity has proven problematic for communities wrought with injustice and inequality. The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 lasted 381 days. Black Friday boycotts of recent years have not had the same impact because shoppers simply put off going to stores on Friday morning only to shop online on the same evening.
According to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, the current African American buying power of $1.2 trillion is expected to reach $1.4 trillion by 2020. Yet only 2 cents of every dollar spent by African-Americans goes to a business owned by another African-American. One survey, as reported in the Atlanta Black Star last year, showed an alarming turnover rate for African-American dollars.
“A dollar circulates in the Asian community for at least a month. In Jewish communities, the same dollar lasts for approximately 20 days and in white communities 17 days. Unfortunately, in African-American communities, a dollar circulates less than 6 hours.”
In a throwback to King’s teachings, in order to truly harness and use the power of the African-American dollar, this massive “leakage” must be stopped.
Though the facts upon which this article reflect point to African-Americans, the essence of appropriate communal economic response by any disenfranchised group is the same. As we begin this newest era wherein multiple communities are being unfairly targeted and ignored, both directly and indirectly by the new administration and those local governments, local businesses and multinational corporations who espouse their values, let us listen to the sage wisdom of Paul to depend on no one. And, as King suggested, let the power of our dollar demand that they treat God’s children right.
CARLTON JOHNSON is the operations officer for Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He also serves as president of the Atlanta chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.