Dare To Celebrate

"Lord, have mercy on us, for how dare we celebrate?" With these words, Reverend Bernice King, daughter of civil rights martyr Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., opened a benediction at her father's birthday celebration. And re-opened a debate over the ghetto problem. "How dare we celebrate," the young Rev. King said, "when the ugly face of racism still peers out at us? ... when young African-American boys are killing other African-American boys" in the ghettos? There was little doubt, reporters said later, that Rev. King's remarks were directed against President Bush, who shared the podium with her. The underlying message was: It's your fault. Black problems stem from white oppression. But President Bush gave voice to the other side of the issue. The root of many urban problems, he said, is a "weakening of the family"--and the solution is an internal change in moral attitude. King and Bush were reviving a debate that has raged since the 1960s. Back then, black poverty was blamed on the legacy of slavery. As President Johnson said in a speech at Howard University, "white America" must accept responsibility for black poverty. "It flows," he said, "from centuries of oppression and persecution." The problem with this explanation is that it makes black people victims--and excuses anything they do. When ghetto blacks resorted to riots and violence, it was defended as a justified reaction to an oppressive system. Hubert Humphry, then Vice President, went so far as to say, "If I lived in such conditions, I could lead a mighty good revolt myself." Imagine--the second-ranking official of the government condoning uprisings against the government. And when family breakdown began to tear the black community apart, that was defended as simply a life-style choice. Poor people, it was said, actually prefer transient relationships. The task of government, some said, wasn't to change the way people live; it was to make them happy and well-off in spite of how they live. This became the basic premise of the welfare state. It was offensively paternalistic. Ghetto dwellers were essentially told they didn't have to undertake the arduous task of earning a living and raising a family because it's up to white society to take care of them. A lot of blacks bought the line--with disastrous consequences. Before 1950, marriage rates and labor force participation were actually higher for blacks than for whites. And when Lyndon Johnson gave his Howard University speech, black illegitimacy was 25 percent. But today, thanks to thirty years of telling ghetto dweller they are just victims, the rate is 63 percent--80 percent in some big cities. Fortunately, many black leaders are rejecting the old line of victimhood. They're stressing internal moral change and individual responsibility. They've learned that the solution for blacks who have suffered discrimination is the same as for anyone who has suffered in life: We aren't responsible for what comes to us from outside--but we are responsible for how we react to it. And that's why we "dare to celebrate" Martin Luther King's heritage--his daughter notwithstanding. Because he realized that accepting responsibility is the only way out of endless griping and blaming. The only way out of self-pity. The only way out of the ghetto.


Chuck Colson


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