Martin Luther King Jr.: 40 Years Later
By The Memphis Commercial Appeal Staff Reports
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Look at Henry Turley, a real estate developer, and Charles Ewing, owner of an eponymous moving company.
From a distance, theirs are the stories that epitomize Horatio Alger's legends: Enough pluck can propel anyone into a life of luxury.
Opportunities are unlimited and the American Dream can be yours, Alger's intoxicating myth tells us.
But the lives of Turley, a white man, and Ewing, a black man, are testament to a contrary view. The odds of building the degree of wealth that insulates one from the vagaries of life, depends in part on whether you are born white or black.
The notion that America is a meritocracy is as persistent today as it was two score ago, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was bothered by the "over-reliance on the bootstrap philosophy."
"There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself," King said on March 31, 1968.
"They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. ... (T)hey never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two hundred and forty-four years."
In the 40 years since King was killed in Memphis, the black-white gap on nearly every economic measure has not come close to closing. There is a gaping difference in the net worth of black and white families, even when the families earn similar incomes.
For example, the average black family has 8 cents of financial resources, such as money in bank accounts, stocks, bonds or home equity, for every $1 enjoyed by the average white family.
It's not for a lack of pluck on the part of black people, or malicious exploitation by white people.
The disparities are entwined in the roots of slavery and freedom that came with no land or money.
They are woven into decades of racially biased government policies.
And today, the problem lies in black people's lack of access to the predominately white power structure that controls the city's wealth.
* * *
In this context, wealth is not defined as the opulent lifestyle of Oprah Winfrey.
Wealth is being able to afford private schools for your children. Wealth is being able to tap into your home equity to send your children to college, without the burden of student loans.
It's the down payment your grandmother gives you to purchase a first home, or even the appliances your parents buy for you.
That stash of assets is an insurance policy. It serves as a guarantee that illness or a layoff doesn't spiral a family into economic despair.
By that definition, both Turley, 67, and Ewing, 49, are quite wealthy.
In 1985, Ewing was working as an engraving assistant at The Commercial Appeal when he bought his first truck for his moving company. Today, he lives comfortably in an upscale East Memphis home, owns 28 trucks and employs about 40 people in Memphis and Nashville.
He was the first black investor in the Memphis Grizzlies and deserves a good bit of the credit for bringing the NBA team to town.
Turley, one of the city's pre-eminent developers, is also an unqualified success. His projects include Oak Court Mall, Harbor Town, the Uptown neighborhood and the South Bluffs, where he lives in a grand three-story home with an outdoor pool and indoor koi pond.
Turley has dreamed big and worked hard. But he knows that because he was born white, he inherited privilege that Ewing, born nearly a generation later, was not.
* * *
Turley and Ewing have this in common: They recognize that role models and business connections boosted their chances at success.
Turley can trace family landowners in the area back to the 1820s -- 40 years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.
In fact, Turley's great-great-grandfather Thomas Battle Turley, buried at Elmwood Cemetery, took his slave, Ed, with him to fight for the Confederacy.
Turley and his brother, Calvin, inherited 1,900 acres in Fayette County from his mother's family, land they still own.
He went to Idlewild Elementary and Bellevue Junior High, and for high school, attended Memphis University School.
Turley's marching orders came straight from the headmaster at this expensive, private, all boys school, which enrolled its first black student in 1975 -- 17 years after Turley graduated.
"The head of MUS said, and this was very memorable to me: 'You boys will direct and control this city,'" Turley recalled. "It will be your obligation."
"We always thought we could control our destiny. We had that confidence."
Add to that confidence a little cash. His great-uncle gave him savings bonds every Christmas. His great-aunt willed him 66 shares of Union Planters stock. The car he drove in college at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, he inherited from a great-aunt: a black and gold '57 Ford.
He grew up in the Annesdale neighborhood, where single-family homes sat next to rooming houses.
"We were told to save and never waste," Turley said, and he took that to heart. He still has the small wooden box in which he stashed slivers of soap too small to use in the bath.
His father supplied the connections for his first few jobs, including one fitting stout men for suits at the old Julius Lewis store and another as a property manager collecting the rent, including from the rooming house from which James Earl Ray fired the shot that killed King in 1968.
* * *
Ewing grew up in South Memphis, in a shotgun duplex his mother rented. In 1977, he graduated from a high school that remains predominately black by virtue of the all-black neighborhood around Booker T. Washington High, then and now.
"Pride was the lesson of the day," Ewing recalled.
Still, his family was poor; his mother's bed was in the front room. "We were almost living day to day," Ewing said. "Definitely month to month."
One month, the welfare benefits stopped. His mother's Avon business and the barbecue she sold on the side boosted her income enough to disqualify her for benefits.
His mother, Eddie Mae McDowell, now 82, also did business as the neighborhood "candy lady," selling lollipops, lemon drops and other treats from her home.
"She was a hustler and an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are hustlers," Ewing said.
The business advice he got from his mom, who got as far as the ninth grade and had 12 children, was this: Make a dollar and save a dime.
He laughed when asked if relatives ever gave him savings bonds. When his biological father and stepfather died, they left no inheritance; a common occurrence among black Americans. Eleven percent of black families receive an inheritance, compared to 24 percent of white families.
Ewing started his business, as he told Overton High School students during Career Day in February, with nothing but faith.
"Had my dad just left me a pickup truck, I would have been so much farther ahead," he said, not with any bitterness, just resignation.
His life was not without career connections: His stepfather, Nathaniel McDowell, a transportation supervisor at the newspaper, helped Ewing get a job in 1978 as a janitor at the newspaper.
McDowell also knew the manager of a U-Haul store, and when the company changed the color of its blankets from orange to blue, the manager gave the old ones to Ewing. The manager also gave Ewing a cheap weekend truck rental deal.
Still, Ewing, married with two daughters and a son, worked two jobs for 15 years. He took advantage of the newspaper's tuition reimbursement program and got in a few business classes, but not a degree, at what was then Shelby State Community college. In 1993, he was able to quit the newspaper and focus on Ewing Moving Co.
* * *
If the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had made all things equal, in Shelby County, where 52 percent of the population is black, 52 percent of the wealth would be in the black community.
Except that 6.5 percent of white people in Shelby County live in poverty, compared to 28 percent of black people.
Except that in 1999, median household income for a white family in the county was $51,551. For a black family, it was $28,354.
Of all the revenues generated in Shelby County, eight-tenths of one percent is generated by black-owned businesses.
The majority of wealth -- 70 percent -- is passed from generation to generation. On average, white families inherited $115,000, compared to a $32,000 average for black families.
Research indicates that for every dollar in income, whites are able to turn that, on average, into $3.25 in wealth. For blacks, that dollar generates $1.98 in wealth.
And studies have not found significant enough differences in spending to account for the disparities in wealth.
Yet, 44 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, there are persistent questions among some white people as to why so many black people remain financially insecure. After all, some contend the government has done what it could -- and more than it should, critics of affirmative action insist -- to level the playing field.
Don't make this argument to Turley.
"You're asking me if the playing field is level?" Turley asked, before letting loose a string of profanities that equal a resounding no.
Black people, he said, especially if they are poor, "have more opportunity to fail than to succeed."
* * *
Ewing agreed that black people's margin of error is slim. The mistake a single black person makes is quickly extrapolated, seen as a proof of a flaw in the entire race.
He remembered a local hospital that had a bad experience with a black supplier. For years, Ewing said, the hospital wouldn't do business with any minority contractors.
So when he started his business, he kept his brown face off recruitment materials.
Better to let his clients find out when he showed up that his was a black-owned company, and by then, he'd have the chance to dazzle the client with his professionalism.
"I've faced prejudice at every level, but I don't address it, I work around it," Ewing said.
Turley never worried that his skin color would be a business liability, not when all the others making the deals looked like he does.
Has being white made it easier to become a developer of note? "A lot of things I ponder, but I don't have to ponder that. I was never that dumb."
Turley shared a recent incident when a black businessman asked him to attend a critical business meeting. Turley insisted his presence wasn't necessary.
"We black folks don't have the access you've got," Turley recalled the black man telling him. Turley's presence would lend him credibility the black man wouldn't have otherwise. Although Turley didn't want to agree with him, he knew the man was right.
He climbs the mahogany stairs of his riverfront home, where he lives with his wife, Lynne, his footfalls echoing in the stairwell. "When your steps sound better than most people's instruments, that's privilege."
* * *
You don't have to go back as far as the days of slavery to see how the government paved the road for white people's success -- sometimes in the most literal sense, starting in the 1940s by building highways to suburban neighborhoods in which black people were forbidden to live.
As far back as 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, black people's access to unclaimed land out West, or later, in the South, was limited greatly by their lack of money to build homes on the land or tools with which to farm it.
In 1935, when more than half of black people worked on farms or as domestic help, the government excluded those classes of workers from receiving Social Security benefits.
When the 1944 G.I. Bill promised college education to World War II veterans, most state schools barred black soldiers from admission and historically black colleges didn't have room to meet the demand.
The New Deal's FHA housing programs "redlined" predominately minority neighborhoods, making subsidized federally backed mortgages unavailable to most black families.
Perhaps Paul Kivel, the white author of "Uprooting Racism," puts it in terms that will be palatable: "It is not that white Americans have not worked hard and built much. We have. But we did not start out from scratch.
"We went to segregated schools and universities built with public money. We received school loans, Veterans Administration loans, and housing and auto loans when people of color were excluded or heavily discriminated against," Kivel wrote.
"We received federal jobs, military jobs and contracts when only whites were allowed. We were accepted into apprenticeships, training programs and unions when access for people of color was restricted or nonexistent."
* * *
Former senator John Edwards focused much of his failed presidential platform on economic inequity and wasn't afraid to address the black-white wealth gap.
"African-American families have an average net worth in America today that is about 10 percent of white families. That is not an accident," Edwards said in an Essence magazine interview. "That is a direct result of many decades of slavery followed by segregation followed by discrimination."
You might expect to hear this from a Democrat, but President George Bush also acknowledged the wealth deficit for black Americans. ...
"(O)ne of the problems in the African-American community is there hasn't been asset accumulation," Bush said in an interview with Fox News. Bush spoke of black workers he met at a Mississippi automobile plant, who were proud of their 401(k) investments.
"They said it's the first time ... anybody in their family had accumulated assets that they could pass from one generation to the next."
Closer to home, Ben Parkinson is wrestling with the realization that he has benefited from being a white man in a "racialized" society.
"Why does it seem like white people were always in a position to help others?" wondered Parkinson, a teaching pastor at Fellowship Memphis, a deliberately racially integrated church. "Why is it that I'm on the better end of the deal in America?"
In a February sermon titled "Being White in America," Parkinson, 34, told the congregation that his family wasn't racist, but that they benefited from a racist society.
"When you look at how our family got their wealth, my grandfather could not have gotten that job if he was black," he said.
"I really have begun to pray about what it would look like to make some sort of restitution."
Within the year, Parkinson, his wife and his three daughters will move from Plaza Gardens subdivision, north of Poplar Plaza, into the comparatively poorer neighborhood of Binghamton. He expects there will be a significant savings between his previous mortgage payments and the payments on his less-expensive home. He plans to take that money and help neighbors who are renters become homeowners.
For Parkinson, this is not a matter of compassion, but justice.
In a small way, Parkinson will be doing what King asked for decades ago: "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro."
* * *
Today, black people's access to wealth has less to do with the color of their skin.
"Beyond race, there's an connectivity issue," said Luke Yancey III, president and CEO of the Mid-South Minority Business Council. For instance, he says, take the new mixed-use development budding at Poplar and Cleveland.
"Someone conceived an idea and talked to someone who talked to someone," said Yancey, who is black. "When black people hear about these projects, it's in the paper."
"In absence of us not having generational networks, the only way we can be included is for someone to invite us to the table," said Yancey, who came to MMBC after 30 years in the banking business, most recently as president of the west region of First American Bank.
Yancey wants this to be clear: There are first-generation black-owned businesses that are able to compete with multi-generational white-owned businesses, but "it's a harder hill to climb."
The MMBC helps put more minority-owned businesses in a position to compete, with programs such as its business incubator, which now provides office space, marketing plans and more to eight minority businesses. The council will also make its first loan to a minority-owned start-up business in the next few weeks.
"Most wealthy people did not become wealthy through the exchange of labor, but through business ownership and enterprise."
The black-white income gap has actually grown in the years following King's death -- in 2004, black families earned about 58 percent of what white families did, compared to 63 percent in 1974. But income remains less important to a family's financial security than the accumulation of assets that equal stability for this generation and the next.
But there has been progress in the 40 years since King's death. About a third of black families are considered middle-class, with annual incomes between $35,000 and $75,000. The MMBC was born, Ewing started his moving company and a growing number of white people acknowledge the privilege that comes simply by virtue of their race.
Yet in those 40 years, King's formula for black equality remains unrealized: "Green power -- that's the kind of power we need."
- Wendi C. Thomas: 901-529-5896