Jonathan Tilove, the Newhouse news service journalist whose coverage of race and immigration many consider the best and fairest in Big Media, has teamed up with photographer Michael Falco to create a small coffee-table book called Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America's Main Street. The two (white) men visited a sizable fraction of the 650 streets named after Dr. King—and returned with a valuable impressionistic portrait of the blackest streets in black America.
A dozen years ago, during the worst of the decade-long murder spree kicked off by the introduction of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, undertaking this project would have been slightly nuts for a man like Tilove who has a wife and kids. He notes:
"The comedian Chris Rock famously advised, 'If a friend calls you on the telephone and says they're lost on Martin Luther King Boulevard and they want to know what they should do, the best response is 'Run!'"
Fortunately, the black murder rate has fallen by about 50 percent since its peak in 1991-1993. Tilove and Falco's odyssey has become reasonably prudent. It's a trip well worth sharing with them.
Veteran actor Ossie Davis provides a wry theme for the book:
"I don't know what God intended by making us so gifted on the one hand and so impecunious on the other. I'm sure He's got something in mind which He'll explain to us later."
Tilove runs into some memorable characters, such as the Rev. J. Richard Harris of St. John First Missionary Baptist Church in the impoverished town of Belle Glade, Florida. This was once home to the near-great black novelist Zora Neale Hurston (whose collected works I reviewed for National Review in 1995). Her first novel Jacob's Gourd Vine portrayed a morally flawed preacher. But not even Zora could have dreamt up the Rev. Harris.
The Reverend is a convicted felon who did time for traveler's check fraud in the 1970s, pleaded no contest to failing to return a rental car in 1996, and claims to have firebombed white-owned businesses in the 1960s.
Yet, Tilove says,
"Harris has a remarkable talent, a gift, for which there is no precise word in the English language. Through a combination of charisma, chutzpah, cunning, and cool, he has a knack for being where it's at and looking as if that is right where he belongs."
For example, in 2000 his humble congregation was astonished to view him on the global Super Bowl broadcast consoling the losing coach.
Reason: Harris' Belle Glade is a town of 15,000 that has sent roughly one football player to the NFL every year since 1985, a rate about 100 times the national average.
Leveraging this local natural resource, the Rev. Harris now specializes in ministering to the spiritual needs of NFL players, most famously Baltimore Ravens superstar Ray Lewis during that linebacker's murder trial. One pro player recently gave the Rev. Harris a Lexus. Another gave him a Rolex.
His duties counseling rich young men don't preclude this man of God from pursuing a love affair with the camera that makes Paris Hilton look like J.D. Salinger. Tilove notes that Harris was subsequently seen introducing Jesse Jackson at a protest rally during the 2000 Florida recount brouhaha; lecturing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland; and dancing with former Attorney General Janet Reno in a New York Times photograph of her bizarre "Janet Reno Dance Party" fundraiser that was inspired by Will Ferrell's Saturday Night Live sketch.
Tilove uses the various Martin Luther King streets to illustrate some important themes in modern African-American life. In liberal (and thus ultra-expensive) Portland, Oregon, MLK has become so safe that white 20-somethings are beginning to bid up housing prices and drive blacks out of town. Harlem's Martin Luther King Boulevard (better known to its residents as 125th Street) serves to depict the collision between major chain stores, recently drawn to black neighborhoods by the decline in crime, and the idiosyncratic but inefficient local shopkeepers.
"The two questions most frequently asked by white people about our journey along MLK are: "Are there any that are not just in black neighborhoods?" and "Are there any nice ones?"
It's unfortunate Tilove didn't visit Los Angeles' MLK, because it provides answers to both questions.
The eastern stretch of MLK is now 80 percent Latino according to the Census. LA's black community is increasingly squeezed between an irresistible force—the endless tide of Hispanics pushing in from the east—and an immovable object—the wealthy white beach suburbs to the west. A fair number of African-Americans are leaving California, with Atlanta a destination of choice for middle class blacks looking for a heavily black metropolitan area with relatively few immigrants.
The western end of Los Angeles's MLK, in contrast, is indeed a quite "nice" middle to upper middle class black neighborhood of well-maintained homes and verdant gardens.
More unusually for a black district, it also enjoys decent shopping, some of it built by basketball legend Magic Johnson. He's made a lot of money in recent years providing upscale national outlets such as Starbucks to affluent blacks who prefer spending their leisure time among other blacks rather than putting up with the irritations of integration.
Tilove seems suspicious of this trend toward national chains opening in black areas. He profiles Sikhulu Shange, a Zulu from South Africa, who has owned the tiny Record Shack in Harlem for 22 years, but now faces fierce competition from the massive new HMV music store across the street. Portending even higher rents in the future, Bill Clinton moved into an office down the street:
"'I am finally home," says the former president, who, more pink than white, now finds himself the most famous person on the most famous black street in the world. At the Record Shack, Shange can only shake his head. "The jig is up," he says."
But the big chains are latecomers to the process of crowding out black shopkeepers. They were pushed aside years ago by immigrants from patriarchal cultures, such as Greece or Korea, where the senior male can compel his entire extended family to toil diligently in the clan's store or restaurant.
African-Americans, by comparison, tend to lack the kin solidarity needed to prosper in small business. Big corporations with carefully worked out procedures offer ambitious individual blacks a surer road up the ladder.
Surprisingly, the weakness of Tilove's book is that it focuses on black-white relations in a 1960ish sort of way, almost completely skipping over the impact of immigration. [VDARE.COM NOTE: Of which he is certainly aware. See his articles on Lewiston. white flight, September 11, immigration reformers, and the GOP's suicidal Hispanic strategy.]
Yet the future of the MLKs of inner city America will largely be hammered out between blacks and immigrant minorities—as will the future of the African-Americans themselves.