By Bob Allen
Four million black people were fired in 1865, when President Lincoln and the federal government abolished slavery, a pastor told a packed house at the first summit meeting of a new coalition of churches in Louisville, Ky., formed to empower to predominantly African-American West Louisville.
“They were not freed,” Kevin Cosby, senior pastor of St. Stephen Church, told a nearly packed house of white and black faces at the Empower West Louisville faith-based summit held Sept. 23 at the church he has led since 1979, “They were fired … with no skills, no property and no wealth.”
With laws in place to prevent slaves from accumulating wealth, Cosby said, in 1865 four million people possessed one half-percent of the wealth in the United States. The share for their descendants today has increased to just 2 percent, he said, with 400 billionaires owning as much wealth as the entire African-American population of the U.S., over 41 million people.
“The question is why,” Cosby said, offering three possibilities. One is “because God ordained it so,” a view formerly backed up by theological views.
“In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention was established in 1845 on the premise that God had ordained that Africans would be the hewers of wood and drawers of water,” Cosby said.
Another possibility, he said, is that “Africans are innately inferior.” A third way to explain the wealth gap “is social engineering,” using the analogy of the way society was organized with the playing of a Monopoly game.
“Certain players were given three thousand dollars, Board Walk and Park Place, all the hotels and the get-out-of-jail-free cards,” he said. “And then people of darker colors were given nothing.”
“Then they said ‘let’s play,’ which means that when the darker people played, if they landed on someone’s property without a get-out-of-jail free card, without the resources to take care of the situation, that they would always be behind.”
Cosby, who also serves as president of Simmons College of Kentucky, which was recently designated a Historically Black College and University, and leaders of the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship began a conversation that led to the formation of Empower Louisville.
It began with weekly meetings of clergy from the college and churches including Broadway Baptist Church, Crescent Hill Baptist Church and Highland Baptist Church, all affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The group, which also includes pastors of St. Matthews Episcopal, Peewee Valley and Westwood Presbyterian and Christ’s Church for Our Community, read and discussed books, starting with Black Power, the revolutionary book about civil rights written in 1967 by Stokely Carmichael.
“It is not about anger,” Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church, said about the book. “It’s not about being anti-white. It’s not about being isolationist, but rather it’s about recognizing the need for power — emotional power, spiritual power and financial power.”
Phelps said someone in the coalition suggested the name “Stokely’s List” for an idea to pull together a “Yellow Pages” or “Angie’s Lists” type resource listing of black-owned businesses for distribution not only in West Louisville but citywide.
Cosby said one reason he suggested the book by Carmichael is because his message is often misunderstood. While “painted as a separatist,” Cosby said, “the fact of the matter is that he is a realist; we are already separated.”
Cosby described an “American dilemma,” which started in the 1940s when white Americans in large numbers began to grasp the evils of racism and segregation.
“The remedy proved to be worse than the problem,” he said. “We went from segregation to desegregation to integration to disintegration of the black community.” Cosby referred specifically to the disappearance of vital institutions that once served the black community.
“The purpose of integration, as it was implemented, was to alleviate white guilt,” Cosby said. By and large “it did not correct black suffering,” because the only African-Americans who benefited from “integration as implemented” were the black professional class. Those people were “co-opted out of the black community,” he said, leaving “the masses of African-Americans without leaders and resources.
Cosby said because of the “tipping point” — a rule that says any time a minority population exceeds 7 percent in a community there tends to be a “realignment” or “white flight” — in theory there will always be a black community.
“The question only is will it be a healthy, viable black community with businesses and amenities that other communities take for granted?” Cosby said, noting that while the combined income of African-Americans is larger than that of many countries, blacks spend 98 percent of their disposable income outside of the black community.
“If your blood does not circulate in your body, you will die,” Cosby said. “If dollars do not circulate eight to 10 times in the black community, the black community dies.”
“That is the root of the problem,” he said. “That is why we encourage black people to set up their own businesses, fall in love with each other and support each other.”
Cosby said such talk is often criticized as “segregation,” but he asked, “Why is it that when we talk about the retention of dollars in our community that’s segregation, but when it’s done in Chinatown or Greek town or other communities, it’s not?”
Cosby described America’s black community as both a “colony” and a “ghetto.”
“It’s a ghetto because it is socially isolated,” he said. “It is a colony because it does not retain the wealth,” he said.
“The businesses in our community are not owned by people who live in the community,” Cosby said, adding that it is time for African-Americans to create and support their own businesses.
“Not only that, but just like blacks travel to St. Matthews and go to the malls, we want to encourage others to come to the black community and do business in our community as we have done in their community,” he said. “It is the call of the Christian church to do that.”
Phelps said he and other white clergy “have been educated in a profound way” over the weeks and months by Cosby, “who has helped people like me see more clearly the injustices.”
“We’ve kind of nibbled around the edges of them, but with his help and with the help of some things he’s invited us to read, I feel like many of us have had our eyes opened,” Phelps said. “Now we want to join in doing what we can to help right some of the wrongs that have been done for centuries, and especially here in West Louisville.”
Phelps said he is participating “not as some kind of guilt trip” or punishment, “but rather to make amends and to restore the balance in West Louisville” — helping the to community to “rise to the greatness that is has already within it but is just not being utilized and distributed in a way that makes a lot of economic sense.”
“The reality is that African-American children have been told for years that in order to be accepted you must work twice as hard as your white counterparts,” Phelps said. “I think the time now requires us to say to the white community, it’s time for us to work twice as hard and to go the extra mile so that resources can be brought to West Louisville, empowerment can happen.”