Commentary: Reaching equality in the promised land

The Kansas City StarFebruary 17, 2012 

Joelouis Mattox said something that I had never heard before about African-Americans.

It's important particularly now as the country celebrates Black History Month.

"We're living in the promised land," said Mattox, 75, a local historian, writer and independent scholar who can be found most days at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center.

African-Americans have attained significant positions of power and authority, Mattox noted. We have President Barack Obama, Mayor Sly James, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Police Chief Darryl Forté, Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Chairman Frank Ellis, Truman Medical Center Chief Executive John Bluford, U.S. District Court of Western Missouri Chief Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr., Kansas City Art Institute President Jacqueline Chanda, University of Missouri-Kansas City Chancellor Leo Morton, University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, and United Way of Greater Kansas City President and Chief Executive Brent Stewart.

“I say we have entered the promised land because of the long struggle that we’ve had across this country and in Missouri of getting to the point of public servants who are black,” said Mattox, who has compiled a much longer list of achievements of modern-day African-Americans. “Their whole purpose is to serve this community and humanity.”

In the 1930s, some American homes displayed pictures of Franklin Roosevelt; in the 1960s it was John F. Kennedy. Today, homes of African-Americans and others prominently display pictures, books and magazine covers of Obama. On the computer room wall at Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy are pictures of Obama, James and Cleaver.

African-Americans take pride in these black role models. “It’s unique in that they stand on the shoulders of so many men and women who’ve had these aspirations,” Mattox said.

Racism and discrimination severely limited the career trajectory of our forebears. Mattox used the first black Kansas City police officers as examples. They wore the uniform and the badge but could not arrest white people. “But I’m sure they felt their children and grandchildren could be police officers in the same service as white people could,” he said.

The civil rights movement opened doors to the great American ideals of equality, freedom, justice and opportunity. Despite racism’s continuing obstacles, Mattox sees the Kansas City area as being among the nation’s most progressive communities because this majority white area has elected and promoted African-Americans to top jobs in government, the judiciary, higher education, and business and industry.

What’s also impressive is that these individuals have educated and prepared themselves for top jobs for years so that their success is certain.

Mattox remembers being encouraged when Kansas City Councilman Bruce R. Watkins came close in 1979 to becoming the first black mayor. Twelve years later, Cleaver cleared the barrier.

Still, in one respect the pace of progress has surprised Mattox. “I did not think I would live to see a black president,” he said. “I kind of thought it was possible, but not this soon.”

Now Mattox is concerned about the future, particularly the presidential election in November.

He knows Obama has a natural ability to unite people of all colors, ethnicities, incomes, faiths, nationalities and immigration status while that quality is lacking in the Republican presidential candidates. But Mattox worries about voters turning their backs on the progress. He’s also concerned how black people will react if Obama is defeated this year.

“This is a delicate period,” Mattox said. An Obama defeat could signal a new wave of retrenchment in America away from embracing and promoting diversity and move the nation back to a United States of exclusion.

“If Obama is not re-elected, 75 percent of blacks will feel we have been rejected,” Mattox said. Anger could follow.

Leadership then will have to step up to help channel that anger toward positive outcomes. It shouldn’t take another 220 years before the next black president gets elected. The 2012 election will determine the face of the future in this promised land.

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