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By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
“In short, over the last ten years the Negro decided to straighten his back up (Yes), realizing that a man cannot ride your back unless it is bent.” - Martin Luther King in a speech delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention, “Where Do We Go From Here?”
Heeding King’s words, African Americans across the country stood up straight and displayed power with their dollars to bring about economic changes. Greater support was given to black-owned businesses.
In Memphis, “bank-in” and “insurance-in” movements were started.
“We've got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank—we want a ‘bank-in’ movement in Memphis. So go by the savings and loan association. I'm not asking you something we don't do ourselves at SCLC,” said King, in the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. “Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We're just telling you to follow what we're doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies in Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an ‘insurance-in.’ Now, these are some practical things we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.”
A nationwide following developed. Operation Breadbasket created 2,200 job opportunities in Chicago and produced several jobs in Cleveland. It caused chain stores to advertise in black-owned newspapers. Large companies opened new accounts and deposited funds into black-owned banks, enabling them to offer loans to black businesses.
“And so Operation Breadbasket has a very simple program, but a powerful one. It simply says, ‘If you respect my dollar, you must respect my person.’ It simply says that we will no longer spend our money where we cannot get substantial jobs,” noted King.
Picketers in Birmingham wore signs that read, “Don’t buy where you cannot be a salesman,” which forced five downtown department stores to hire at least one black clerk. And, Detroit had Black Bottom and Paradise Valley that were filled with black-owned businesses.
Many shared in King’s dream of equality and economic stability. During segregation, black businesses flourished. However, some say that integration has contributed to their demise.
“We can shop where we want, eat where we want and get almost any job at the big fancy corporation down the street,” said Boyce Watkins, a Professor of Finance at New York’s Syracuse University. “The problem for our community is that … integration, for the most part, was simply prolonged assimilation, like moving into someone else’s home and giving up the keys to your own.”
An empty field sits where Denise Rogers’ grandfather once owned and operated a television repair shop on Detroit’s west side. Pointing to the area, she says, “I remember when this area was filled with black-owned businesses. We had our own supermarket, gas station, funeral homes, clubs, restaurants and everything you needed right in our neighborhood. Look at it now! It’s empty. The few black businesses left are struggling. I often wonder why we go outside of our neighborhood to patronize businesses that don’t look like us and don’t care about us, instead of patronizing our own.”
While some believe that African Americans are committing economic suicide by not fully supporting black-owned businesses, others blame urban renewal and the indoctrination that “white” is best.
“It amazes me how a white and black-owned business can sell the same product that is made by the same manufacturer. But, if the product offered by a black-owned business is a few cents cheaper, then some folks think that it’s inferior,” said Lucille Mitchell, 83. “You mean to tell me that you’re willing to drive 10 miles out of the way to pay more rather than buy it in your own community. What kind of sense does that make? The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It could be an artificial turf.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 2 million Black-owned businesses in the United States, compared to 22.6 million white-owned businesses. Yet, African Americans have about $1.2 trillion buying power.
“In order for there to be a strong America, there must be a strong black America. In order for there to be a strong black America, there must be strong black businesses. And, in order for there to be strong black businesses, there must be strong black chambers of commerce,” said Ron Busby, President of the US. Black Chambers Inc. (USBC), headquartered in Washington, DC supporting 123 chapters in 29 states and representing more than 265,000 members. “Both black businesses and black consumers benefit when trading with each other. By doing so, we are strengthening our ability to compete in mainstream markets, and as a result, this increases opportunities for job growth.”
So, will you stand up in continuing King’s dream of economic equality? Or, will you bend over to carry someone else’s load? Wake up and fulfill your dream of entrepreneurship and support someone else’s.