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Close the Book

Martin Luther King Faculty/Staff In-Service
January 20, 2014

I want to tell you a story. For those of you who have heard the story, I beg your indulgence. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and Prichard, Alabama. We were poor. I am neither bragging nor complaining. People who brag about being poor are lying, denying, or creating hero narratives where they are the heroes. And, I am not complaining because I believe that we go through what we go through so that we can know what we know. Being poor taught me a lot, though it came with tuition that I didn't want to pay.

We lived several miles from a landfill. In those days we called it a dump. The dump was in a section of Mobile called The Bottom.

We had friends whose house abutted the dump. When we visited these friends I would play in the dump. I would beat old car tires with a baseball bat, play hide-and-seek in and around the discarded freezers, and walk around finding rags and other treasures.

There were people living on the dump, in makeshift huts. I was a child and I thought like a child. I remember being envious of the people who lived on the dump. I thought, "Wow! It must be fun to live on the dump."

It is been a long time since I was a child. Years later I would learn that at the time those people lived on the dump, the United States had 5 percent of the world's population, but controlled almost 40 percent of the world's wealth. People were living like pigs in the wealthiest country on the earth.

A couple of miles from the dump there were plantation-style homes. Inside those homes were some of the richest people in Alabama.

I spent many years teaching about social inequality: teaching about the ways that the social goodies--power, prestige, and property--are unequally distributed. Of course, you don't have to take a sociology course to know that a person's "life chances" are related to their economic status. If you are poor, you are more likely to receive an inferior education, more likely to have a dead-end job, more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to be sick, more likely to die earlier. This is what sociologists mean when they speak of the correlates of poverty.

So, I spent many years teaching about poverty. Most of my students, like most of their parents, blamed the poor for their poverty. This was not surprising. We live in a nation that values individualism and competition. The value of individualism is linked to the belief that people are responsible for their own destinies. This value leads some people to see the poor as parasites. And, the value of competition suggests that the social goodies go to the most talented and hard working people in the culture, and those who lack talent and a strong work ethic cannot successfully compete. This value leads some people to see the poor as pitiable.

I reminded my students that most people, regardless of talent and work ethic, die in the same social class into which they are born--and that this is true in every society. Yes, there are poor people who lack talent and a strong work ethic--the same is true of members in all social classes--but there are structural, macro-level impediments to large numbers of poor people escaping poverty. My students and I spent a lot of time arguing. It is good that college classrooms host debates about the causes of poverty and other forms of inequality. These debates sharpen the intellect and soften the soul.

When I first announced the theme of this year's MLK In-Service, several of my colleagues scolded me. They stated that the theme, What are you doing for others?, took attention away from the real issue, namely, systemic, ingrained, culture-wide patterns of inequality. Some claimed that we had fallen in the "Thousand Points of Light" trap, meaning that we believed we could fix structural inequality in the United States by doing good deeds. They were wrong. I believe that societal problems must be addressed on multiple levels. Yes, we do the nation a service by teaching about patterns of inequality. But, teaching about social problems cannot be the only approach. This nation needs a solid education, sustained activism, and good works.

The philosophers Sly and the Family Stone used to sing about Everyday People: a butcher, a banker, a drummer. In other words, people like you and me. We are the Everyday People, and we are part of the solution to what ails the United States and what ails the world. We can read and debate the theories and research about inequality or we can close the book, stand up, and go help someone.

Poverty is an intimidating and discouraging social problem. Go to any city in the United States and you will find people living in dump-like environments. These are real people, not an abstract, intellectual category. They are people with hopes and fears. And, quite frankly, many of them are not interested in discussions about economic determinism. They are interested in having a home, obtaining a job that does not pay starvation wages, getting their children educated, affording health care, enjoying some of the social goodies. Helping a poor family will not change societal patterns of inequality, but it will change the pattern of that family's life. And, when we get done helping that family we can pick up a book, voting ballot, or protest sign.

Margaret Mead, the famed anthropologist, said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." I am preaching to the choir. We are blessed at Ferris to have many people who have closed the book, stood up, left their homes, and gone out to help others. We have people who help families build affordable housing. We have people who work with literacy programs. We have people who work with foster youth and impoverished orphans. We have people who work with women's shelters. We have people who collect food to give to others. We have people who donate clothes to the First Lady's Attic. Our students rake more yards than any students in the country. We have people who work to change the many laws that disadvantage less-powerful groups.

I want to thank those of you who work on behalf of people who hurt. You are the Everyday People who kiss greatness. This quote from Dr. King reminds us that there is greatness, true greatness, in serving others. In his words, "Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."

David Pilgrim, Curator
Jim Crow Museum
January, 2014