This is an expert from an interview Dr. King did with NBC
Reporter: “What is about the negro that every other group that came as an immigrant somehow, not easily but somehow, got around it? Is it just the face that Negroes are black?”
Martin Luther King Jr: “White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil, ah... that is one thing that other immigrant groups haven’t had to face. The other things is that the color became a stigma. American society made the Negro’s color a stigma. America freed the slaves in 1863 through the emancipation proclamation of Abraham Lincoln but gave the slaves no land, or nothing in reality, and as a matter of fact to get started, and at the same time America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base and yet it refused to give the black peasants from Africa who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked for free for 244 years any kind of economic base. And So emancipation for the negro was really freedom to hunger, was really freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, it was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and that was both freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the negro to lift himself by his own boot straps they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation I believe we out to do all we can, and seek to life ourselves by or own bootstraps, but ah, it’s a cruel injustice to say to a bootless man to that he ought to lift himself by his own boot straps and many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”
It has been a struggle for me to explain why suggesting that black people “pick ourselves up by the bootstraps” is not only insensitive but unrealistic in many cases. It is a shame this conversation is still relevant today, but the reason this conversation still lingers is because of the vast head start people without black or brown skin are given when they come to this country.
I sit at my desk proud as I think of how much we have been able to accomplish, we have literally made bricks without straw, something no one else has had to do in this country. Many people of the dominant race claim to have never been given a leg up but still somehow make it, and become confused about why black Americans can’t do the same. I will forever be grateful for the people that came before me; they shed blood, sweat, and tears so that I can use the same restroom as my co-workers, eat at any restaurant I choose, go for a walk and not step off the sidewalk into the grass when a white person approaches. I will forever be grateful. However, in so many ways I still feel as if I am playing catch up.
There is no family home or property that has been passed down in my family. My sister and I did not receive a car that was handed down from our parents when we were teens. We don’t have a “wealthy” aunt or uncle, or well off grandparent that we can go to if we get in any sort of bind. We worked full time jobs while we were in college and we are both now in our mid 30’s learning to navigate debt, credit, and retirement. Sure, this is the not the story of every African American person in the United States, but it is the story of many.
My parents were born in the 50’s before the Civil Rights Movement ended. My mother’s parents were born in the 20’s in the deep south and my father’s parents were born in the 30’s in the deep south. There was a very limited amount of wealth and even knowledge to be passed down to my parents, and in turn to my sister and I. The only thing that was passed down to us was hope. Hope that we could somehow cross every barrier, jump every hurdle, climb out out every box we were put in, hope that we would have the wisdom to know when to challenge the adversaries we were destined to face, and hope that we would know when to remain silent in order to be able to hope another day. Our parents hoped that we could somehow make a life that was better than the generation before us even when they didn't have much to pass down to us, because their parents didn't have much to pass down to them in therms of wealth, but more importantly knowledge and opportunity.
What we have been able to do with only hope in our hands is astounding, but we should not forget that not every black American person in this country was given hope to even pass down to the next generation. You see, many white Americans don’t realize that all we had/have in terms of “boot straps” is hope, and not every black American that managed to live through the 20’s, and 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s was able to hold on to hope long enough to pass it down.
I am so sorry that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not able to live to see how far his hope has traveled. Some lost it along the way, but many of us are still carrying it.
Happy 90th birthday Dr. King!