MONDAY, January 21, 2002
The troubling story of Dr. Omar Shafey
|Karen Charman is an investigative journalist
specializing in agriciulture, health, and the environment.
This article has been nominated for the Upton Sinclair Award,
sponsored by the American Industrial Hygien Association; it
appeared on January 7, 2002 at tompaine.com
by Betsey Culp (firstname.lastname@example.org)
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Call on
January 17, 2000:
Long ago and far away, in a time of innocence and public
decorum — the story goes — a tired seamstress made history
simply by sitting still.
In 1955 the city of Montgomery, Alabama boasted an
antiquated public transit system, which testified daily to the
survival of an antiquated social system based on racial
inferiority and two-tiered citizenship. Black riders were
required to pay their fare at the front of the bus, climb back
down the steps, and reenter by the rear door. There, they were
allowed to sit so long as white passengers did not need their
seats. When the bus began to fill, however, African Americans,
professors and maids alike, found themselves evicted from
their place, often with a humiliating shout from the white
driver: “Niggers get back.”
One December day, Rosa Parks’s feet were hurting
her, and she refused to move. After the driver called the
police and the 43-year-old woman was hauled off to jail, her
plight galvanized the African-American community. It
instituted a bus boycott, and the Civil Rights movement was
Or so the story goes.
In fact, the South was fairly bubbling with
anti-segregation activity during the months following the
Brown vs. Board of Education decision of May 1954.
Or rather, the bubbles had come first: the Supreme Court
delivered its ruling against “separate but equal” schools in
response to a series of carefully organized campaigns begun a
decade before. In Montgomery, the NAACP was itching for a
legal battle over the bus system.
Enter Rosa Parks — well-educated, middle-aged, with
twelve years of experience as NAACP secretary. “She was
decent, and she was committed,” recalled E.D. Nixon, president
of the Alabama NAACP, “so when she stood up to talk, people’d
shut up and listen. And when she did something people just
figured it was the right thing to do.”
The local Women’s Political Council had been poised
for years, network and plans prepared, waiting for the right
opportunity to mount a challenge. President Jo Ann Robinson,
an English teacher at all-black Alabama State College, ran off
35,000 flyers calling for a one-day bus boycott and delivered
them to every school in the city, where teachers stood ready
to hand them out in class. The news spread quickly.
“Monday morning, December the fifth, 1955,” Robinson said
later, “I shall never forget because many of us had not gone
to bed that night. It was the day of the boycott. We had been
up waiting for the first buses to pass to see if any riders
were on them. It was a cold morning, cloudy, there was a
threat of rain, and we were afraid that if it rained the
people would get on the bus. But as the buses began to roll,
and there were one or two on some of them, none on some of
them, then we began to realize that the people were
cooperating and that they were going to stay off the bus that
Montgomery’s African-American community stayed off
the bus that first long day and many more, refusing to get
back on until November 13, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court
ruled that the segregated bus system was unconstitutional. The
coordinated activity affected the city’s economy as well, for
downtown white merchants began to complain of a business
decline when black customers failed to patronize them. And the
boycott hurtled the young minister of the Dexter Avenue
Baptist Church into the national spotlight when the newly
organized Montgomery Improvement Association selected the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as its president.
King’s words provided the music for thousands of
tired feet: “If you will protest courageously and yet with
dignity and Christian love, in the history books that are
written in future generations, historians will have to pause
and say ‘there lived a great people — a black people — who
injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of
ago but not so far away, in a time of passion and public
protest — the story goes — San Francisco looked at its image
and found it lacking. In 1965 Herb Caen took stock: “The Negro
population has grown tenfold since World War II, but San
Francisco, for all
its vaunted tolerance, has moved slowly to
meet the challenge that this presents. The Negro, now
representing one-tenth of the city’s population, is largely
restricted to a single section of substandard old housing —
centering on, and radiating from, Fillmore Street — and the
ills implicit in such a situation are clearly to be seen: de
facto segregation in the schools, inequitable job
opportunities, crime out of proportion to the population, mass
picketing and demonstrations.”
Redevelopment to the rescue! Proudly parading the
twin banners of “Slum Clearance” and “Blight Removal,”
builders set out to transform the center of the city into a
shiny world-class kingdom by the sea, where slums would not
offend, where state-of-the-art office space and elegant
high-rises would attract investors and stimulate the economy.
Looking back in 1974, city watcher Frederick Wirt noted, “Most
citizens by the bay put their money, votes, labor, and skills
into another urban dream, in which not cable cars but gleaming
new towers ‘reach halfway to the stars.’ These are the
politics of income, in which the shared values of acquisition
fuse most social strata into a coalition of mutual interest.”
Or so the story goes.
Down went the old, and up went the new. No matter
that the Western Addition — centering on, and radiating from
Fillmore Street — lost some 4,000 of its former residents.
(Somewhere in their desk drawers, many of the dislocated still
keep the certificate given them by the Redevelopment Agency,
offering them the opportunity to buy any land in the area that
comes up for sale. Given the price of San Francisco land,
these certificates are about as useful as Confederate
dollars.) No matter that the other targeted area, South of
Market, lost a similar number of low-income residents, many
elderly, from all ethnic groups.
On April 10, 1968, just a week after an assassin
silenced the golden-tongued minister who had given voice to
the Montgomery bus boycott, the San Francisco Redevelopment
Agency ceremonially broke ground in Martin Luther King Square,
the site of a federally subsidized housing project in the
heart of the Western Addition. Local protests stirred up a
“passing flurry of proletarianism” in the courts, to use
Redevelopment Agency director Justin Herman’s phrase. They won
a few seats on city commissions for people of color but did
nothing to stop the bulldozers in the neighborhoods. In 1978
excavation began on the site of the new Moscone Center,
intended as the centerpiece of a revitalized South of Market
area. The site now contains an ironic configuration: over one
section of the convention center spreads the park known as
Yerba Buena Gardens; nestled within its six-acre expanse,
which was subsidized by thousands of uprooted lives, stands a
waterfall, a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr.
in a time of cynicism and public apathy — the story goes —
officially legislated racial segregation is only a distant
memory. Faces of color appear everywhere, in athletics,
entertainment, business, and government. A series of
African-American mayors, from Atlanta to San Francisco, have
turned traditional urban politics topsy-turvy.
If he had lived, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have
celebrated his 73rd birthday last Tuesday. No doubt
his precisely trimmed mustache would be threaded with gray,
and perhaps his round face would have acquired a broader beam.
He would look in astonishment at the world of the twenty-first
century, for no one could have predicted thirty years ago that
African Americans would become such highly visible men and
women. And then, perhaps, he would bow his head in sorrow,
realizing how far in the future his dream still lies “that one
day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of
its creed.” What would King have made of a 2000 study by a
Boston group called United for a Fair Economy, which estimates
that 268 billionaires live in the United States, and 34.5
million people below the official poverty line? Or recent
census reports that more than a quarter of all African
Americans — more than 9 million people — live in poverty? That
the median income of blacks is only about 60 percent of the
entire country’s? That, according the Justice Policy
Institute, 40 percent of all African-American men in
California live under some sort of judicial control — most
likely, incarceration or parole? That African-American men in
California are imprisoned eight times as often as their white
Most likely the good reverend would nod his head in
sad comprehension. Perhaps things haven’t changed so much
after all. Perhaps in the end, race is only a marker, the
minus attached to the grade society assigns to class. Perhaps,
he would say, the principle is still valid that he enunciated
in New York City exactly a year before his death: “True
compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not
haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice
which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
… and distorted
MONTAGE OF A DREAM DEFERRED
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
— Langston Hughes, 1951
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Economics is part of our struggle
We are aware that Montgomery’s white businessmen have tried
to “talk sense” to the bus company and the city commissioners.
We have observed that small Negro shops are thriving as
Negroes find it inconvenient to walk downtown to the white
stores. We have been getting more polite treatment in the
white shops since the protest began. We have a new respect for
the proper use of our dollar.
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— Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Our Struggle,”
Liberation Magazine, April 1957)
Through our scientific and technological genius, we have
made of this world a neighborhood and yet . . . we have not
had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But
somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all
learn to live together as brothers. Or we will all perish
together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment
of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And
whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., speech, St.
Louis, March 22, 1964
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I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can
have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture
for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize
Acceptance Speech, Oslo, December 10, 1964
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True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar;
it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an
edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break
Silence,” New York City, April 4, 1967
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Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate
the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of
poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of
the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that
live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis
of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast
into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in
a decent sanitary home.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go from
Here?” Atlanta, August 16, 1967
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Another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is
that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have
to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to
grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force
them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the
Promised Land,” Memphis, April 3, 1968
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Most citizens by the Bay put their money, votes, labor, and
skills into another urban dream, in which not cable cars but
gleaming new towers “reach halfway to the stars.” These are
the politics of income, in which the shared values of
acquisition fuse most social strata into a coalition of mutual
— Frederick Wirt, Power in the City (1974)
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“Freedom trains” will carry customers from BART’s five
end-points to Powell Station on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
— BART press release, January 4, 2002