By JONATHAN TILOVE
January 11, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ The vast and dreary B.W. Cooper public housing project on Martin Luther King Boulevard in New Orleans is eerily empty since Hurricane Katrina. Its thousands of inhabitants, black and poor, are strewn across America, with long odds on their return.
“I dread going back to New Orleans, but I want to go back to stay,” said Shirley Jackson, a 27-year resident of Cooper who has until early February to vacate the Motel 6 in Port Allen, La., where she now lives with a few of her grown children. But, as she noted in a recent letter to The Times-Picayune newspaper _ printed under the plaintive headline, “The Poor Can’t Afford to Return” _ without public housing, she can’t go home again.
Jackson’s fate, writ large, will be much on the minds of those celebrating the life and unfinished business of Martin Luther King Jr. this Monday. In contemplating what has happened since Katrina and what has not, Americans may miss King all the more.
“What we yearn for is a voice of moral clarity that can hold the nation’s attention beyond a few newspaper headlines,” said Steve Suitts of the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta, recalling King’s uncanny capacity to connect disparate events and ideas in ways that illuminated the lies within our lives and summoned our better angels.
Robert Fullilove, associate dean at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, observed King up close as field secretary with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1964. He imagines the oratory the martyred leader might have wrought from Katrina’s rich and biblical imagery: a people flooded from their fertile crescent and cast to the four winds; a diaspora of the dispossessed, too poor to leave before the waters rose, too poor to make their way home _ precisely those to whom King devoted his waning days.
More vividly than any event since King’s passing, Katrina offered a window into the breadth and depth of black poverty. And for a fleeting moment, it appeared to be a window of opportunity for a new War on Poverty, or at least a resolve to rebuild the Gulf Coast from a blueprint for justice.
“All who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans,” President Bush told the nation when he spoke from New Orleans’ Jackson Square Sept. 15. “So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.”
It now seems a more slender Crescent City will emerge. So far, said Adonis Expose, spokesman for the Housing Authority of New Orleans, only 477 units of public housing are occupied; pre-Katrina, there were 5,000. B.W. Cooper remains entirely empty.
For Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, her hometown now carries both the acrid whiff of mold and a chilling deja vu that brings her back to the early King era, when her mother could not register to vote without answering the registrar’s riddle, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
Such flimflammery is history, but Wright wonders how, with most of them absent, New Orleans’ black voters can truly chart their destiny.
“It’s a chicken/egg thing,” said Mike Howells, a longtime community activist, originally from Cleveland, who reads Tarot cards on Bourbon Street. The message from on high is that only those neighborhoods that swiftly repopulate will be maintained. But who can return with little in the way of public housing or public hospitals or public schools?
MLK weekend in New Orleans promised a “right-of-return” roundelay at summits, services, conference and rallies. While the city moved the annual parade (Shirley Jackson’s children all marched in it) to a truncated route from City Hall to the MLK sculpture on King Boulevard, Howells and others organized a march demanding the reopening of public housing. It begins at the parade’s usual starting point in the ruined Lower Ninth Ward.
For all invocations of King’s name, Kalamu ya Salaam, a New Orleans writer, educator and activist, cautions that what really is missing is not the deus ex machina of a messiah, but the movement that made him.
“What people don’t understand, and overlook, is that in the absence of a movement, you’re not going to have a King,” said Salaam, who is directing “Listen to the People,” collecting the stories of Katrina’s survivors to share online.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson of Greensboro, N.C., notes that King’s star was already in decline when he was killed. Johnson was prepared to ask King some tough questions when, leading a delegation of students from North Carolina A&T, he welcomed him to Greensboro on April 4, 1968. King canceled to remain with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he was assassinated.
“Movements ebb and flow,” said Johnson, founder and director of the Beloved Community Center, named for King’s vision of a place that affirms the dignity and worth of all. Post-Katrina, Johnson detects a new flow.
“I believe the kind of lightning bolt of Katrina has shown us the absolute necessity of a movement now,” he said.
“King’s last work was really looking at poverty in America, and Katrina pulled the cover off that,” said Omo Moses.
His father, Robert Moses, is the brave and mystic SNCC leader with a role as hallowed in the movement as King’s. In recent years, he created an Algebra Project to teach black students essential math skills. That spawned the Young People’s Project, directed by Omo Moses, which this weekend launches a “Finding our Folk” tour that over time will take participants to Jackson, Miss., Mobile and Birmingham, Ala., Atlanta, Houston, and Baton Rouge, Lake Charles and Lafayette, La. _ all places where many Katrina survivors now live.
They will try to reconnect the exiles with one another, hear their stories and help them heal. Along the way, Omo Moses said, “We’re going to try to really look at what Martin Luther King stood for, the things he said that made people in this country afraid of him, not the things that made everyone comfortable.”