Putting Dr. King’s Immortal Words To Practice

It has been more than a half century since Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the hot summer sun. In August of 1963, we had a long way to go.

We still have a long way to go.

We’ve given racism a lot of lip service in six decades.  However, we haven’t done enough to make “racism” a word no one needs to use anymore in America.

In truth, we haven’t tried hard enough. Oh sure, plenty of eyewash yet we’re just not there yet.  Racism went underground and for a long time.  It just wasn’t talked about. However, it has boiled under the surface like a bowl of hot French Onion soup for decades.  Dr. King’s death at the hands of an assassin on a hotel balcony stunned Americans, but it wasn’t enough to jolt us into real change. 

On the street, racism remains a serious issue.

It has been through the valiant efforts of the tenacious few there has been any change. I think of Rosa Parks, a lone patriot who exhibited the courage to fight for human rights by sitting in the “Whites Only” section of a Montgomery, Alabama bus. That got her arrested at a time when she took her life into her own hands. That one step, an act of non-violent protest, took monumental guts.

The Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 staged by the late Congressman John Lewis was a turning point toward real voting rights and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Human rights advocates marched for days toward Montgomery. The police were waiting. It was a bloody journey and a turning point for blacks in America. It was but a beginning. So many hurdles have been overcome since against discrimination, yet it continues to happen across America regardless of the sacrifices made by courageous souls long ago.

I grew up in the suburban Washington, D.C. community of Bowie, Maryland which was a hot bed of protests by both whites and blacks in 1963 when a black man—Dr. Karl D. Gregory—tried to buy a new home from developer Levitt & Sons in the new “Belair At Bowie” community. He was denied the right to buy.   Like Levittown, Pennsylvania, which was a predominately white community with its share of racial tensions, Belair At Bowie was also a “Whites Only” suburban Washington housing development built by Levitt. 

Company President Bill Levitt perceived selling to blacks would hurt home resale values and drag the community down. He was concerned whites wouldn’t buy in a community where blacks were present. His copout was other developers were doing it too and that was just the way business was done. Why does that perception of business leave a really unpleasant taste in my mouth? Because others were doing it gave Levitt license to do it? Levitt would have gained more ground as a business by marching to a more diverse beat. He blew it badly. 

Dr. Karl D. Gregory in the Levitt Belair At Bowie sales office in 1963.

It wasn’t until 1967 with the Fair Housing Act that Levitt & Sons, which had been sold to ITT, welcomed blacks to buy new homes in Bowie. Ironically, Bill Levitt died in 1994 from kidney disease at the age of 86 after the deal he cut with ITT decades earlier ultimately rendered him broke and in a lot of debt. Because Levitt’s deal with ITT meant he could not compete as a home builder for a decade, he lost important momentum. Levitt was never able to duplicate the great success he had with Levitt & Sons again. Some might call it a form of Karma.

When we take a snapshot of Belair At Bowie, Maryland today, Levitt’s perception of blacks and resale values was a bit askew because the place is humming six decades later. Homebuyers are flocking to Bowie, Maryland today because it is centrally located and remains a peaceful community.  The sky didn’t fall and Belair At Bowie didn’t evolve into a slum.  Instead, Bowie has thrived, with home resale values the highest they’ve ever been.  What’s more, they sell right away.  African Americans encompass 56-percent of Bowie’s population today ironically and the community has never been more diverse.    

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