August 28, 2013 | By Richard C. Longworth

A Dream Debased

On this fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s unforgettable speech during the March on Washington, my thoughts turn to Frank Lumpkin.

Frank Lumpkin was 93 when he died three years ago. A black man, barely educated, born into a Georgia sharecropper’s family, he escaped the Jim Crow South, made his way to Chicago, and got a good job on the city’s south side, at the old Wisconsin Steel plant, then owned by International Harvester. Harvester sold the mill to a tiny California company, mostly to get rid of its pension obligations. The mill closed in 1980 and its bank, Chase Manhattan, froze the company’s assets, including unpaid paychecks and pensions.

Lumpkin, recently retired, went to work. He formed the Save Our Jobs Committee, made up of the stranded workers. There were whites, Czechs and Croats from the old neighborhood, and Mexicans and other Latinos, and blacks, mostly refugees from the South, like Lumpkin. He kept them together, kept their spirits up, found subsidized food, worked with a lawyer named Tom Geoghegan who eventually won a settlement which was less than what the workers deserved but more than they thought they’d get.

Most of them, however, never worked again. 

The full name of the event 50 years ago was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It listed jobs first, freedom second. In his speech, Dr. King barely mentioned jobs and the economy. But his key supporters included unions, like the United Auto Workers, who knew that the freedom to be poor and hungry is no freedom at all, that justice counts for nothing unless it includes an equal shot at a good job.

On this fiftieth anniversary, it’s time to keep score. Fifty years on, what’s been achieved?

On the legal side, quite a lot. Much remains to be done, no matter what the Supreme Court may think. Discrimination, in voting and other areas, abides. The nation still struggles to define equal opportunity. As the Trayvon Martin case showed, race remains America’s great unsolved issue.

But African-Americans vote everywhere and can turn to the courts to protect that right. Jim Crow is dead: the obscenities of that era – the lynchings, the divided buses, the whites-only fountains and entrances, the Klan and its terror, the culture of degradation – are mostly history. In the North, legal residential segregation has ended and workplaces, once all white, integrated long ago.

But on the jobs side of the ledger, it may be worse than then. As Frank Lumpkin and his friends learned, an economy can be both integrated and unjust. These men, white and black, worked equal jobs for equal pay. They were integrated in the mill – and they were integrated in unemployment on the day it closed. The Save Our Jobs Committee stayed together and stayed integrated. But their lives spiraled down and their families splintered, white and black equally.

As everyone knows, America today – especially the cities of the North – is pocked with black inner-city ghettoes, repositories of the poor and hopeless, as segregated in their way as they were when Dr. King led a march through the southwest side of Chicago in 1966, three years after the March on Washington, and was literally stoned by angry whites along the way.

But there’s a difference. Then it was racial segregation. Almost all blacks – rich and poor, employed and unemployed, middle class and working class – lived in these ghettoes. If the ghettoes were racially segregated, they were economically integrated.

The marches, through Chicago and to Washington, eventually worked. Legal racial segregation ended. But it was replaced by an economic segregation that no marching could dent.

Economically, the civil rights revolution turned out to be a middle-class revolution, enabling the educated and skilled to escape the ghettoes. The less educated and less skilled were left behind. Their old jobs vanished. For them, new jobs didn’t exist. So they stayed where they were, the first generation in what has become an underclass of the urban poor, beset by the crime and pathologies that have defaced otherwise prosperous cities like Chicago, and have doomed cities like Detroit.

As the sociologist William Julius Wilson has written, these people are in the ghetto because they’re black, but they stay there because they’re poor. Increasingly, they’re being joined by new ghettoes, mostly white this time, by other workers equally left behind.  

For legal injustice, there’s a political solution, because governments respond, sooner or later, to public pressure. For economic injustice, the solution is more elusive. Companies can abandon a city or a country legally and with impunity, and no protests stop them.

International Harvester is still in business – it’s called Navistar now -- and is collecting millions of dollars in Illinois state subsidies with promises to create jobs that, too often, don’t materialize. Chase Manhattan is still in business – it’s JP Morgan Chase now: it’s America’s biggest bank and regularly coughs up hundreds of millions in fines for market manipulation and other financial sins.

If you’re keeping score, here’s how it looks. Educated African-Americans with the means to escape the segregation of the past have done so. For many of them, the promise of the civil rights revolution – jobs and freedom – came true. The rest, perhaps the majority, have the freedom but not the jobs, history’s cruel joke on the Washington marchers of 1963.

It’s no consolation that they, like Frank Lumpkin’s co-workers, share this underclass with whites, also stranded by this new economy.

Martin Luther King said that, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Fifty years later, that ocean is smaller, the island is larger and not so lonely. I don’t think this is the dream he had in mind.

About

Richard Longworth is nonresident senior fellow on global cities at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of On Global Cities and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest. He also was a distinguished visiting scholar at DePaul University and adjunct professor of international relations at Northwestern University, and is a mentor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago.

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