Maxwell: A matter of personal decision

7/24/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In 1945, officials in Greenville, Miss., decided to erect a memorial to honor World War II veterans that would include the names of black soldiers. But many influential whites protested. One wealthy planter swore that not even over his dead body would his son’s name be placed alongside those of “niggers.”

Hodding Carter, whose son served in the Carter White House, was editor and publisher of the local newspaper, the Delta Democrat-Times. He responded in an editorial to the angry whites:

“How in God’s name can the Negroes be encouraged to be good citizens, to feel that they can get a fair break, to believe that here in the South they will some day win the things that are rightfully theirs _ decent housing, better educational facilities, equal pay for equal work, lifting of health standards and all the other milestones along an obstacle-filled road _ if we deny them so small a thing as joint service recognition?”

Why am I rehashing an ugly incident of nearly five decades ago? Because Carter, a reformed segregationist, has described better than most other observers of U.S. culture a problem that’s central to the concept of “good” citizenship among black Americans: Many black people tend not to be “good citizens” because they’ve been systematically denied access to many of the freedoms, opportunities and privileges afforded most other groups.

Though compelling, his argument is naive because Carter is suggesting that for black people _ unlike other groups _ their sense of citizenship must be derived from external forces, that for them to feel good about their communities or nation, blacks must be treated the same as other Americans are treated.

In reality, though, genuine citizenship must come from within. One of the best examples of real citizenship was demonstrated by southern whites and Jews who _ even though they had no material reasons to do so _ risked their lives by marching with Martin Luther King. Why? Because as good citizens, they believed that fighting for the rights of blacks was their duty. Another example is that of black people who’ve faced discrimination but who actively participate in the affairs of their communities.

Where does their sense of citizenship come from? Why do certain groups, like middle-class whites, volunteer for civic projects, while low-income blacks don’t? Why are most Miami Cubans superpatriots, while many Miami blacks, by their own admission, aren’t? Why do many third-generation Asians, Jamaicans and other immigrant groups have a stronger sense of citizenship and enjoy more of the country’s pleasures than do blacks?

Obviously, we’d be hard-pressed to compare the citizenship of a successful Vietnamese grocer in Chicago, who owned a shop in his native country, with that of a black male in Detroit’s inner city who’s never held a full-time job. Such a comparison defies logic. One major difference between the two is that the Vietnamese, having left his country to escape the kind of hardships the black still experiences in his homeland, is motivated by different values and, therefore, has developed a different sense of citizenship.

My objective isn’t to explain why many blacks tend not to be good citizens but to point out that if they want to avail themselves of the nation’s many opportunities, blacks must independently reach inside themselves and find ways to become good citizens. The black person who’s waiting for a requisite number of outside forces to help him or her become a good citizen is as absurd as Gogo and Didi who’ll be waiting for Mr. Godot forever.

What, then, is citizenship? It isn’t mere displays of holiday patriotism or flag-waving. It’s going off to fight for the country, yes, but it’s much more. It’s registering to vote. And voting. It’s running for public office. It’s assisting Habitat for Humanity. It’s picking up curbside debris. It’s joining a crime watch group. It’s turning down the volume of your radio for your neighbor’s sake.

It’s mowing your lawn in a timely fashion. It’s painting your house or asking your landlord to paint your apartment. It’s planting flowers in the yard. It’s helping the police keep an eye out for crime on your street. It’s watching out for area children. It’s visiting the local school and getting to know the teachers and principal. It’s donating blood.

These are deeds that any competent person _ black or white _ can perform.

Citizenship is the countless little things that show that individuals care, that they respect one another’s rights. It’s the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community. It’s the very salvation of black people and their communities. Why, then, shouldn’t black people cultivate good citizenship? There’s no good reason not to.

Yet, hundreds of thousands of young black males nationwide seem determined to make themselves non-citizens. In the process, they’re relinquishing any chance of enjoying their lives. Here, I’m reminded of an insight Elijah Muhammad offered the young Malcom X as they discussed black males’ increasingly alienated position in America. Nothing, Muhammad said, is more dangerous than young black men who have nothing to lose.

Such young men have nothing to lose because they lack a sense of citizenship. Essentially, they’re what Jewish exile Hannah Arendt called “stateless” persons, those “on the fringes of society, where one runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death.” They’re like 16-year-old Anthony Hayward, the Miami boy charged with the shooting death of Charlie Bells, the 44-year-old funeral home worker who stopped to help the girl his car had struck.

Listen to Annie Ross, a black resident of the community where Bells was murdered and director of a crime watch group, as she tells of her failed attempts to bring a sense of citizenship to the area. “The people won’t cooperate,” she said. “We’ve tried to get the bad guys out, but we can’t do it by ourselves. People don’t care anymore. You’re lucky to make it out of the house in the morning and lucky to get back home at night.”

Apologists for black people’s general lack of citizenship can recriminate and blame white folks all they want, but the hard truth is that good citizenship is the only thing that will save communities like the Brownsville section of Miami where Bells was shot.

External gestures, such as the “joint service recognition” that Hodding Carter spoke of almost 50 years ago, are symbolic public relations stunts that won’t turn black people into good citizens. This sense of citizenship will have to be cultivated by black people without the help of whites.

Black people must reach inside themselves and find bona fide reasons to join their communities in productive ways. Otherwise, too many of them will always be angry, unhappy outsiders.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.


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