Theological Thursdays: Dr. King and Today’s Buffalo

Today’s Theological Thursday column will be written in two parts.  This, the first part, begins a conversation that will be revisited on Monday, Martin Luther King Day.

Martin Luther King Day is among the most unlikely of American holidays.  It is the only federal holiday to recognize an ordained minister, the only one to recognize an African-American, and (as far as I can tell) the only federal holiday celebrating a person investigated by the federal government. 
Dr. King visited Buffalo twice in his life, in 1956 and 1960, but did not address the particular concerns of Buffalo either time.  So the task I propose for the weekend is one of imagination.  Given what Dr. King said in his context, what might he say in ours?
Known as an advocate for desegregation, Dr. King also passionately spoke out against poverty, and in favor of pacifism and labor.  Would Dr. King speak for LGBT people today?  How would he address terrorism?   Materialism?  Technology?
In particular, what would be the most important first step in Buffalo for Dr. King?  Would he fight our unofficial segregation by block/neighborhood?  The violence we experience?  Poverty?
This has been on my mind all week.  My twitter feed this week features 1 to 3 quotes per day from Dr. King, and on Sunday at 10AM, I will preach one of his sermons at Lafayette Church.  (Amazingly – and sadly – it is still relevant.)
After all of this reflection, including your own, Part II of this topic will be published in this space on Monday, Martin Luther King Day.
A personal plea:  open and honest discussion is encouraged, but please hold yourself to a high standard of kindness and collegiality.  Discussions that touch on race are sorely needed, but often avoided because of negative participation.  This is especially true online, where nobody knows you are a dog.   Play nice, and if you would not take ownership of a comment by putting your real name next to it, then please don’t say it.

About the author  ⁄ Drew

8 comments
DMZ
DMZ

I lived in Tennessee and visited Atlanta on occasion. While TN was kind of similar to Buffalo with regards to segregation in some neighbor hoods, Atlanta was truly mixed. It was culture shock to visit my friend in the suburbs and see black people next door. While I lived down south during college I visited many bars, and generally there was a 95/5 ratio of whites to black, up here it's more 99/1. In the south they they have a nice way of keeping black people out of bars. Shirt tucked in, no baggy pants, no team names, no baseball hats, etc etc. I witnessed these rules strictly enforced for black people, but not so much for others. I will say this though, North Buffalo is fairly mixed. I think we get caught up by judging neighborhoods by the pedestrian traffic. If you drove around and watched who walked, you would think that only black and Latinos lived in the area. Most of the white people are driving their cars. Besides Turkey Trot and Italian Fest the only time I really saw a lot of white people from the area walking was during the October storm.

Luke Cage
Luke Cage

I think Dr. King would focus on a cultural shift. At this point we have a church, hip-hop, sports culture. I think Dr. King would have us focus on financial literacy, and the importance of education.

georged
georged

Excellent post, couldn't agree with you more. It only takes travel to other cities (especially in the south and west) to see how segregated Buffalo is. Restaurants, bars, etc. are almost exclusive to one race in the city. There is plenty of distrust on each side. Hiring practices in this area in the private sector are ridiculously one-sided and really reflect the who you know crowd. No wonder so many African-American college grads leave the area.

Cojo
Cojo

I'm not 100% sure complaints about "being white" is an anti-education slant. I've heard my husband's brothers and old neighborhood friends tell him he's "trying to be white". But listening to these conversations, I get the impression they're NOT talking about his education per se. They seem to be talking about:

1. The way he "talks white". He uses proper grammar, unusual words (for the ghetto), and rarely-to-never swears. He has to use proper English to be respected by his colleagues, and to his old friends, this is a violation of his heritage and a subtle insult to them. I have heard educated people "from the hood" (including an MD) tell me they purposely adopt old speaking patterns when they reconnect with old friends, and my husband sometimes does it too. This aspect of culture manifests in the offensive comment that someone is "well-spoken".

2. They view him as "selling out". In the hood, educated people are infamous for leaving. In a highly segregated city, they are leaving one highly homogenous (black, in this case) area for another homogenous (white) one. So, again, they view it as "trying to be white".

But yeah, it's the "crabs in a bucket" theory...I think no one should be discouraged from an education, ever. Education is the way up and out of bad situations, but unfortunately some people get so accustomed to bad situations they start to take pride in them and view them as "culture". To me, that is tragic. I agree that MLK would try hard to inspire people into a better life.

biniszkiewicz
biniszkiewicz

Interesting observations. I wonder if any African Americans living in poor white neighborhoods would second your take.

Regarding violence, particularly in African American culture: in the book I reference below the author argues that American slaves adopted the culture of their slave owners. The antebellum south was a violent culture, where duals over perceived slights were common, braggadoccio was rampant and military prowess was revered. The violent repression of slaves was considered to be biblically ordained as well as socially beneficial. Violence was absolutely necessary to a culture in which slavery was to be maintained. Slaves endured far more violence than slave owners. For hundreds of years slaves lived and died completely within this culture of violent repression. In part, it's hard to change those cultural norms even generations later.

There is also an aspect of entitlement to antebellum southern culture. Robert E Lee complained that leading southern soldiers was endlessly difficult because each and every one of the troops felt that they were above doing the menial work required to keep an army functioning. Every one wanted the glory of battle, but none of them was willing to do work they considered beneath them, and most of the work needing to be done fell into that category.

biniszkiewicz
biniszkiewicz

I think Dr. King would be preaching about the responsibility to become educated, the moral responsibility individuals share to take advantage of opportunities fought for and won by others before them. Removing barriers of segregation was a necessary, but insufficient, condition for the social and economic advancement of African Americans.

I plug a particular book once in a while which I especially like: "Black Rednecks and White Liberals", by Thomas Sowell. The author, an African American scholar, blames African American culture for the poverty within African American society. He argues (compellingly, in my opinion) that southern blacks adopted the redneck culture of their slave owners and that this redneck culture of white slave owners is misapprehended as 'black' culture today. It's a positively compelling read. I think King would largely align himself with Sowell on education and the struggle to succeed. Barack Obama said, while addressing the Democratic Convention in 2004: "We have to end the slander that says a black kid with a book is 'acting white'." There is a strong anti-education strain running through African American society. Too few leaders stress personal responsibility for life's outcomes. King would (whereas Jesse Jackson and Sharpton, in my opinion, inculcate a culture of victim hood).

grad94
grad94

good ground rules, rev. drew, for all of bro, not just your column.

for what its worth, i think mlk visited buffalo in 1967, too.

Cojo
Cojo

Wow...I'm kind of scared to comment on this post. I guess I'll put on my windbreaker and head on into the storm. For the sake of perspective, I'm white. I have lived in a low income white neighborhood & a low income black neighborhood (MLK/Humboldt Park on the East Side).

Officially, there are no segregation laws or regulations. On that front, MLK & the civil rights movement won. It was a great victory. But it is by no means the end of the battle, so I think MLK would continue to push for equality on that front. Buffalo is so segregated by block and neighborhood that it might as well be law. Our neighborhood on the East Side is over 97% black. I encounter open hostility while walking the streets, usually in the form of racial epithets shouted out of a passing car. Our home was also vandalized, though I'm not sure that this was racially motivated. It's a mistake to think that racial discord is exclusively a "white" problem - it needs to be worked on from all sides.

The biggest difference I noticed between the low-income white & black neighborhoods was the level of trust. In the low-income white neighborhood, we bartered, traded, borrowed, shared, and did favors for one another, like babysitting or shoveling the neighbor's sidewalk. Then I moved to the East Side. Neighbors distrusted each other intensely. One neighbor helped us maneuver a piece of large furniture into our home, (how nice! I thought), then put his hand out and said "you know, I don't work for free". That's indicative of what I've seen since. Little is freely given; no one is trusted, and as a result, everyone is an island, trying to ascend without a ladder of support. Please do NOT get me wrong. There are mostly very good, honest, friendly people on the East Side. But it seems risky to trust others. A few bad apples will exploit help, and the cost can be disastrous for a well-meaning family. It drove me crazy to think about the diverse set of skills and resources we could pool together, yet most of us didn't even know our neighbors' names. The churches on the East Side (True Bethel Baptist) are doing a TREMENDOUS job coordinating help, but it's still rough out there, and not everyone goes to church.

My point is that I think the BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT that could be made in racial peace in Buffalo is for people to regain trust and cooperation within their neighborhoods. I was so encouraged by the Extreme Home Makeover thing. If neighborhoods could band together on the small things, I think they could really get momentum on bigger things. It is not fair that the fear of violence keeps people from cooperative effort, so I think working to stop violence would go the longest way toward restoring trust.

OK. Please don't hurt me. (Covers head)

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