On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, ‘We have a long way to go before equality of opportunity is real for everyone’
In the years before and after the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (“King”), the nation was roiled by racial discrimination, divisiveness and polarization. Sadly, these practices continue to this day. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, Ocean State Stories interviewed several local Black leaders to gauge their perspectives.
King, from Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967
“When King died, the Black unemployment rate was twice that of whites’ …,” said James Vincent, a former president of the Providence Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), “and that’s true today, too.”
Vox’s 2018 report, “How America has – and hasn’t – changed since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, in 11 charts,” starkly highlights America’s racial inequalities: Blacks have worse outcomes than their white counterparts in employment, income, family wealth, unemployment rates, college graduation rates, incarceration rates and likelihood of being shot by police.
“The election of Barack Obama … represents huge progress from a time when Blacks weren’t recognized,” said Chris Abhulime, founding pastor of the King’s Tabernacle Church, a Pentecostal nondenominational church in Johnston. “Many Blacks cried with joy at his first inauguration, and at the election of Vice President Kamala Harris and [at the Senate confirmation] of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.”
Since its 2020 launch, the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC (BLM RI PAC) has raised $60,000 and several of its endorsed candidates won their races, including a state senator, three state representatives and a Providence City Council member, reported Harrison Tuttle, the 24-year-old executive director of BLM RI PAC.
While recognizing increased numbers of elected Black officials nationally and Rhode Island, Vincent said, “We still have far too many Black people living in poverty without health care, inadequate education, skyrocketing rates of incarceration and a huge disparity between Black and white wealth. It’s inexplicable that we would be in this place today after 50 or 60 years of marches, actions and protests. Too many Black people are second- or third-class citizens in America.”
U.S. Rep. Gabe Amo, who won the special election to fill the seat of former U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, is a member of our most racially diverse Congress. “We should aspire to a House of Representatives that fully reflects the range of backgrounds, identities and life experiences of people in our country,” said Amo, “but a [diverse Congress] is really about the policies …that we implement to make people’s lives better.”
When Amo speaks about elder issues, he represents the perspective of his grandmother who lives in elder housing in Pawtucket; when he speaks about Black people’s health disparities, he represents Black individuals and families whose health outcomes don’t match other Americans’ healthier lives.
Of initiatives to ban books and forbid teaching African-American and women’s histories Amo said, “The first step … is to understand our history. Without a true history and accurate telling – both good and bad – we can’t go forward. We should talk about the [country’s] failures and triumphs.”
By refusing to understand the nation’s full history, “we disable ourselves from doing the work to make government effective in bettering people’s lives,” said Amo. “With book banning, I see a real deliberate attempt to disregard our past and not be inclusive about our future.”
Rhode Island has its own checkered history as a key venue for trading enslaved individuals, and the ancestors of Amo, the state’s first Black member of Congress, came from Ghana, one of West Africa’s largest gathering points for individuals captured for enslavement. “It’s a part of our history that we should acknowledge and use as motivation to make the economic outcomes for people better,” Amo said. “It’s about looking … ahead to make sure that we’re creating opportunities for everyone to thrive, yet knowing that we have a long way to go before equality of opportunity is real for everyone.”
As small businesses are the backbone of the national and Rhode Island economies, Lisa Ranglin, CEO and president of the Rhode Island Black Business Association (RIBBA), believes focusing on equity when investing in micro- and small businesses is essential.
Ranglin, a former banker, challenges local financial institutions to develop innovative products and services to address the needs of the minority community, a generally untapped market. Building relationships with underserved small and micro-businesses would create more Black entrepreneurs and growth in portfolios, home ownership, Black businesses and Black employment, and benefit lenders, as well. “Look at the Black community as an asset; work with organizations like RIBBA to provide businesses with financial literacy education,” said Ranglin, calling herself a “proud Jamaican woman.”
Commissioned by the Rhode Island Foundation, in partnership with Rhode Island Commerce, a March 2022 report recommends specific actions state government should take to promote the growth of and support for local businesses owned by Black and Brown individuals.
“Year after year, politicians come into our communities with empty promises; we’re now demanding more robust investments like King talked about: Equality, equity and a level playing field for all,” said Ranglin. In late September 2023, Boston-based LCR (Lawyers for Civil Rights), and RIBBA asserted that Rhode Island is not providing equitable opportunities to minority- and women- owned businesses when awarding state contracts.
Despite today’s challenges facing the Black community, Vincent aims for small victories. “I asked Governor Raimondo to appoint [or nominate] seven judges of color. Five Black and one Latina recommended judicial candidates now serve on Rhode Island courts. These individuals were the first people of color to hold their judicial appointments: Melissa Long, the first Black Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice; Keith Caroza, the first Black Workers’ Compensation Court associate judge; and Elizabeth Ortiz, the first Latina nominated to a Rhode Island court [as a Family Court associate justice],” said Vincent. “That was a quantifiable achievement.”
Recognizing that the social determinants of health – employment, education and housing – contribute to health inequities in diverse communities – Blue Cross & Blue Shield of RI (BCBSRI) and Brown University School of Public Health launched the RI Life Index in 2019. Last year’s 2023 survey demonstrates that many Rhode Islanders still perceive steep challenges finding affordable housing, meeting the rising cost of living, and getting access to health care and nutritious food.
Highly treatable if caught early, colon cancer is the nation’s fourth most common cancer. That’s why BCBSRI, in partnership with Lifespan Community Health Institute, is focusing on improving screening rates. “In 2022, 76% of white members and 69% of Black members were screened; we hope to cut that disparity in half by 2025,” said Bautista-Ravreby, “by hosting community events, identifying vulnerable members and informing them of appropriate screening options.
Attributing such disparities primarily to prosecutors’ initial charging decisions, Harris referenced data from a 2023 United States Sentencing Commission report addressing disparities in the federal prison system. It found that Black men receive sentences 13.4% longer than white men; and Black males were 23.4 percent less likely to receive a probationary sentence compared to white males.
What would be more equitable? Parole and probation practices should be fair and consistent, reform extreme sentencing measures and work toward decarceration, said Harris. “We also need to challenge disparate sentencing based on racial disparities, reform drug policies, limit incarceration for probation and parole violations,” said Harris.
Harris has a personal perspective on the criminal justice system. Supporting her drug habit by shoplifting, she was charged with 24 felony counts of shoplifting, and served eight years in the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI). The addiction was “a revolving door for me. The ACI did not care about rehabilitation or mental health issues or helping Black women in any way,” recalled Harris. “I saw white women come into the ACI with the same charges I had and served less time than me; that made me angry.”
Today, Harris reported being “clean from drugs and prison.” In addition to her work at DARE, she is studying criminal justice at the Rentry Campus Program, which helps people in and out of prison earn an affordable college education.
By incarcerating nearly 2,00,000 people at any given time, the United States leaders the world in its incarceration rates; that translates to a rate of 565 per 100,000 residents, according to a Prison Policy Initiative report. The cost is not insignificant: The nation spends some $182 billion annually to incarcerate approximately 1% of our adult population.
Abhulime believes that, if King had not been assassinated at such a young age, the nation’s progress toward racial, social and economic equality would have been accelerated. “King was the moral compass who could have led us in the area of race relations into the Promised Land,” said Abhulime. Calling conversations and policies more effective than confrontations and protests, in bettering society, Abhulime warned against King’s “dungeon of complacency.” We must continue, he said, to focus on ensuring diverse workforces and equal opportunities for all Americans in education, housing and social mobility.
Tuttle was inspired to activism after George Floyd’s May 2020 murder. “I feel that I wouldn’t be able to have done the work I do without the work that King did and the sacrifices he made. Despite the many threats to his life that he faced, he wasn’t afraid to work across the aisle with folks who didn’t share the view of inclusive society we have today.”
“I think King would look on his legacy that brought forth great progress, with the elections of former President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris,” said Amo, “but he would be disheartened that we haven’t done more. There’s record growth in black small businesses, but the legacy of redlining … and unequal economic and health outcomes feed into a lack of freedom,” he said. “King would be pushing for more action.”
“I’m grateful to be in a position to bend the moral arc of the universe more toward justice,” said Amo.
King, said Vincent, would have shed tears of joy had he witnessed Obama’s election, and his doubts about the country might have been dashed. But, the rise of Donald Trump and his racist and fascist attitudes and actions, said Vincent, would have caused King to sink into a deep depression and unhappiness that America wasn’t working toward becoming a welcoming multicultural democracy. “Too many people today are willing to exclude people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community from America’s promise,” said Vincent.
Acknowledging that King was deeply disliked by large swathes of the population during his lifetime, Tuttle believes that, if King were alive and preaching his values, he’d be criticized today, too. “I think he’d be very outspoken and highly critical of the lack of progress within the Democratic Party and [deeply concerned] about the policies put forward by MAGA Republicans, the loss of reproductive freedom, restrictions on voting rights, etc.”
“In 60 years, we have had incremental growth. I think King would be disappointed in the progress we’ve made in racial and economic justice, especially for Black people. It’s important to celebrate the progress we’ve made, but we must be open-minded and reflect on what … we can do better,” said Ranglin. “King would be proud if we could … work toward economic and social justice and empowerment for all. We need … voices from all impacted communities.”
Urging Black Americans to return to the church and spirituality, Abhulime said, “King’s initiatives started in the church; [when it] was the place of assembly, safety and organizing; we need to return [there]. Until we realize King’s dream, our work is not done. We must acknowledge the Black American experience, collectively embrace and work hard to solve the issues that King fought and died for.”
“With these initiatives, we’re working to give information to folks so they can make good decisions for their health,” said Bautista-Ravreby. “At BCBSRI, people are intentionally … collaborating to achieve King’s vision; that gives me a sense of hope.”
Given the passion for advocacy Tuttle sees in many of his colleagues and young people, he believes the arc of history bends toward justice. While King couldn’t have anticipated Donald Trump, “King taught us to fight for the democratic principles we believe in,” said Tuttle, who admires young men of color in Congress, including Reps. Amo and Maxwell Frost, (D-FL-10th), the first Gen Z-er in Congress. “That’s why the work we do is so important; we’re focused on getting folks from our communities into positions of power so that we can change Rhode Island laws. The ideas and values for our country moving forward are always from a bottom-up approach.”