Memorial Day is more than parades and barbeques. The solemn reflection on the men and women who have given their lives for freedom deserves the highest priority. Among this honor roll, the countless nonviolent activists who confronted authorities and suffered in anonymity deserve special attention. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic magazine advanced this recognition substantially with his recent article on the ways government and real estate interests collaborated in the seizure of African American property over the last two centuries, based on the extraordinary works of Sandy Darity and Beryl Satter. The brilliant historian Nathan Connolly added needed depth and complexity to this narrative by revealing the seduction of African American property owners in maintaining these injustices – both in the United States and around the world. The common ground these works share is the condemnation of American capitalism as a vehicle for human equality, specifically the cultural and legal interpretations of private property within constitutional republics. Simply stated, property wins – even over life and liberty – too often in ways that betray the human dignity embodied by this holiday.
Too often, the study of the policies and practices that sustained white popular sovereignty since 1850 focused on Washington, D.C., or the growing industrial centers. This approach mistakes the economic, demographic, and cultural manifestations of these ideas with their source – rural landownership. Small towns are the bulwark of American inequality, and the confrontation to transform the idea of a just, global society must begin there. Without that orientation, the most creative interventions to provide opportunities in urban, national, and global policy will always fail. Five overlooked civil rights leaders – Edward Collymore, Nancy Lee, Teresa Nance, Maghan Keita, and Crystal Lucky – embody the ways steady, insistent, educational and economic work can assert human dignity by redefining the relationship between property, life, and liberty. Collymore and Lee confronted an institution with a long history of segregation and discrimination by crafting scholarships and academic support at Villanova University between 1960 and 2000. Nance, Keita, and Lucky seized these opportunities to define the role of diversity generally, and Africana Studies specifically, since 1980. As a result, the university has become a global leader on student, faculty, and community diversity in ways that surpass institutions with larger endowments. They demonstrate the opposite side of the civil rights equation that Connolly and other scholars rightly emphasize – the importance of capital stakeholders in sustaining local projects for human dignity and equality.
The relative scale of this memory is difficult to weigh. Did educators and property holders do more to maintain inequality or to dismantle it? Recent research affirms the conclusion that efforts to reform global capitalism carry substantial financial rewards for those who surrender their commitment to justice. Worse, those who hold to the principles of equity and inclusion reflexively reject any aspect of capital accumulation as inherently unjust. Researchers at Barnard College over the last two years have exploded this binary comparison by documenting comparative economic growth over the last five centuries. Dylan Rivers, Dominique Minars, and Sabastian Murrell have developed dynamic corporate models that prioritize the autonomy of local entrepreneurs in ways that avoid aggressive state interventions like constitutional amendments and lengthy political organizing campaigns.
Amendments and campaigns are crucial aspects of democratic expression, and they can shape essential parameters for the future of human civilization. Radical interventions toward state control in the name of democracy may work at the local, county, sub-regional, state, and super-regional levels. Existing initiatives like the Building One America provide the foundation for more equitable institutions in the United States. Yet, at the national, transnational, continental, conglomerate, and global levels, a private, collaborative range of models are needed to empower historically marginal populations around the world. Beyond reparations and repair, sustainable growth offers hundreds of trillions of dollars in value to eliminate hunger, disease, poverty, and alienation. African American techniques for critical innovation in human capital distribution, like the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, and Afro-futurism, are the sugar, tobacco, cotton, steel, plastic, and electronic industries for the global economy in the twenty-first century.
This Memorial Day, celebrating Civil Rights Veterans is the key to both economic growth and human dignity around the world.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (www.icmetrogrowth.com) and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on LinkedIn, Twitter (@worldprofessor1), Facebook, and by email (email@example.com).