Can Jasper Williams Turn Black America Around?

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Rev. Jasper Williams making a point during a press conference to announce he had been asked to deliver the eulogy for Aretha Franklin. Photo courtesy of Faith Swift

Can Rev. Jasper Williams turn Black America around?

Williams at age 75 years dropped a bomb shell on the Black community last week at the celebration of life services for his childhood friend Aretha “Queen of Soul” Franklin.

While the eyes of the world were upon the celebration in Detroit, Williams exposed some of the ugly conditions in Black America and said in no uncertain terms that it is the responsibility of the Black community to clean up the violence and the poverty found in Black communities across America.

His message appears to be lost on his audience as he has been soundly criticized for calling upon Black people to take a more responsible role in the affairs which inflict the Black community.

Many in the Black diaspora reject any mention of Black people which does not characterized them as a perfect 100. In the Franklin eulogy, Williams essentially said that Blacks are far from the 100 mark.

In many respects, Williams gave Blacks a failing grade. He flat out said, “Black people have lost their soul.”

He put the onerous of this failure squarely upon the shoulders of Black men. However, in doing so, he earned the largest portion of his ire from Black women.

Williams message of self-help and independence for Blacks in America is nothing new. His self-help thesis is not much different from similar positions urged by Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad.

Washington was called an “Uncle Tom” because his “Pull yourself up by your own bootstrap” philosophy was interpreted to mean that he did not believe Black people had the intellectual capacity to delve into the arts and philosophy. This view of Washington persisted despite the fact, Washington preached, “There is as much dignity in tilling a field as there is in writing a poem.”

Nevertheless, throughout the country where Washington’s influence reached, economic centers sprung up in Harlem, New York, on Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, in Memphis, on Broadway in Macon, Georgia and on Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Washington owned much of what is present day Hilton Head, South Carolina. He had Robert Taylor,the school’s architect, draw up plans and develop subdivisions of what would be called today “upscale” housing, along with subdividing certain lands for farming by descendants of former enslaved Africans on the Carolina coast.

This project went belly-up because the new Black Americans plundered, littered and stole from their neighbor’s property. Washington poured in thousands of dollars to keep his vision of a wholesome community where Black Americans could live free and economically independent in the United States.

When the financial ledger could no longer justify the expenditure of capital, Washington withdrew from this experiment, thus Hilton Head is the property we know it to be today.

Probably, we do not know this story because it failed due to the social failings of Black people, so Washington and Taylor and Scott did not talk about it. It was too embarrassing an episode in the lives of Black citizens, who were newly emerged from a system of enslavement in their new country.

Thus, since the 1880s, Blacks, as an ethnic group in America, have been reluctant to publicly discuss the ugly underbelly of the lack of self-discipline among some members of the family.

A few months after the death of Washington, Marcus Garvey, the son of a Jamaican freedom fighter, unable to find work in Jamaica because he had led a labor strike against British rule, came to the United States. The year was 1916.

With Washington’s death, there was a void in Black leadership. Frederick Douglass had been sleeping with the ancestors for two decades, and all of the Black Men who had served in congress during Reconstruction had been removed from their seat of power.

Garvey had learned the ways of the white Brits who ruled the beautiful island of his birth. He used his understanding of white men in power to organize and inspire American Blacks under his leadership to seek economic independence for Black people.

Four years after he arrived in Harlem his Universal Negro Improvement Association had several million members who paid $.35 each week to be a member in good standing. Several thousand paid $5.00 per share in his Black Star Steamship Line that ferried people and cargo between the U. S. and Europe. This took business away from white owned steamships; especially prior to America’s entrance into World War I.

Garvey’s voice cries out to us 100 years later:

“Negroes are divided into two groups, the industrious and adventurous, and the lazy and dependent. The industrious and adventurous believe that whatsoever others have done it can do. The Universal Negro Improvement Association belongs to this group, and so you find us working, six million strong to the goal of an independent nationality.”

Then the white steamship owners squeezed him out of the market by getting congress to pass regulations that Garvey’s business model had not contemplated.

The Black Star failed. Garvey was not able to pay his investors.

He was tried for fraud, defended by the Tuskegee, Harvard and Boston College grad William C. Matthews and deported from the country.

Another embarrassing chapter in Black American history seldom mentioned today. The memory of how Garvey manipulated the symbols of white power with “marching men and women, uniforms, flags, giant rallies, emblems and titles,” gone, silenced by a race moving in a different direction.

In 1934, six years before Garvey died, Elijah Muhammad formed the Nation of Islam. Through his newspaper, Elijah argued for self reliance for Blacks in America. He believed the federal government owed descendants of enslaved Africans reparation in the form of designating several southern states for Black Americans to carve out their own government.

In the meantime, while Muhammad agitated for separation into an independent nation-state, he bought farmland in the south and entered into an agreement to import fish from Peru as a means of sustainability and as an engine for economic growth in the Black community.

Long before the term sustainability was in the lexicon, Muhammad worked to bring healthy food to the Black community.

Perhaps, he foresaw the 21st century phenomenon of giant grocery chains closing stores in Black and minority communities throughout the country; leaving these communities without food to sustain themselves and to maintain optimum health for the people.

Could he have envisioned that Monsanto would seek to own all seeds that are planted into the earth and the creation of genetically modified foods that cannot be as healthy as organically grown fruits and vegetables?

Muhammad’s message that the white man was the devil and the fact that his faith was Islam scared many Black Americans, who at that time adhered to the Christian faith, away from his call for self-reliance and economic independents in the Black community.

The Nation of Islam continues to operate one farm in Dawson, Georgia. Its import fish business first with Peru and later with Japan has ended.

According to Steven Muhammad, an Atlanta community activist and leader in the “Fearless 100” movement taming violence in “Da Bluff” neighborhood, the two people Elijah Muhammad admired were Washington and Garvey because of their philosophy of “doing for self.”

“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad believed that a community had to provide three things to be a viable community: Food, clothing and shelter,” Steven Muhammad said.

In opening sore wounds in the Black community, Williams preaches that Blacks are traveling down a road that does not lead to sustainability of Black culture.

It is areas like “Da Bluff” shown in the photograph above that Williams is trying to improve. But he can’t get on first base because, middle-class and professional-class Negroes are insulted that he dared to mention the Black underclass on a national stage like the funeral of “The Queen of Soul.”

“Jasper Williams has open the door to a national debate. The question is which way will the Black church go? It is the Black church which must show the Black community the way. The Nation of Islam cannot do it. The church can take from our example of men going out into the community and taking responsibility for our families, but the Black church must lead the community to independence,” Steven Muhammad said.

Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine, Medium and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com

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Harvey is Living Now Book Awards 2020 Bronze Medalist for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. Available at haroldmichaelharvey.com

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